Tracee Hamilton: Malcolm Kelly Has Established Himself as the Redskins' No. 2 Wide Receiver
When Jason Campbell threw his first pass, on the first play of the first series against Jacksonville in the Redskins' preseason finale, the last piece of the jigsaw that had been the depth chart at wide receiver clicked into place.
Malcolm Kelly will be No. 2.
It's not official yet -- Coach Jim Zorn flatly denied Monday that he had made a decision -- but when Campbell's first pass in each of the final three preseason games went Kelly's way, it might as well have been skywriting.
Kelly smiles when asked about claiming the flanker spot just seven months after undergoing knee surgery.
"It took a whole lot [of hard work], especially just overcoming last year, being hurt the whole season," he said. "I'm still putting a lot of extra work in because I'm still not where I want to be. I'm steadily gaining, so if they have confidence in me, wherever I end up playing at, it just feels good, especially with them giving me more opportunities in the ball game."
Antwaan Randle El, entering his eighth season in the league, has had a very good preseason, but it's been clear from the earliest days of the offseason that the team expected either Kelly or fellow second-year wideout Devin Thomas to claim the flanker position opposite Santana Moss, which would move Randle El to the slot position.
Randle El, 30, said Monday he didn't know anything about his position on the depth chart.
"Nobody has said anything to me," he said. "For all I know I'm still the guy until they tell me otherwise, in terms of being the number two guy."
Whether or not Kelly ends up at the flanker spot for Sunday's opener against the New York Giants, he will see significant playing time. It's been a remarkable resurgence for a player who missed most of the 2008 season with injuries and then underwent microfracture surgery in February.
The surgery gave Thomas -- who played in 15 games last season compared with Kelly's five -- a chance to put some distance between him and Kelly. And he entered training camp with a bit of an edge. But Kelly pulled ahead with a strong camp. He impressed coaches with his work ethic and his sticky hands.
"I think he has some of the best hands on the team catching the ball," wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "His hands seem to be pretty dependable. We hope that can hold up in the ball game. He has been so far in the ball games and in practice so we've been happy with him."
He also has something the 6-foot-2 Thomas can't hope to match: an extra two inches of height. Does two inches matter? "It makes a lot of difference to the quarterback," Hixon said.
So he can get to balls, and he hangs on to them. It's no wonder, then, that Campbell likes him as a target.
" . . . The way he reaches out and catches the ball is very . . . I'm very excited about it. I just think he's going to be a tremendous player," Campbell told The Post's Jason Reid.
Campbell talks openly about his need to find a "groove" or "rhythm" early in games in order to be successful. Kelly said he and Campbell are working on finding that comfort level as a tandem. In fact, Kelly uses the word "work" quite a lot.
"It doesn't take long," he said. "It just depends on how much work you put in with him. It's always good, especially when he has the confidence that you're going to be where you're supposed to be and that you're going to make a play on the ball. Any time you can get extra work with your quarterback it means leaps and bounds for you and it can end up making the offense go."
Kelly got that extra work in the offseason, coming to Redskins Park on his own time to run routes for Campbell. Thomas and Randle El did the same.
"We would just come and get as many routes as we could," Kelly said. "We really wouldn't run the routes we were pretty good at, we ran the ones we needed the most work on. That's what I do now, after practice. I don't stay out there and run the routes that I know I can do good, I stay out there on stuff that I don't do as good in practice, I work on it after practice."
Randle El is also an advocate for offseason work with his quarterback, saying it's important to "keep your body trained to catching that ball, actually catching it from him [Campbell]."
Despite competing against much younger players -- Thomas and Kelly are both 22, rookie Marko Mitchell is 24 -- Randle El said the youngsters don't make him feel old. Not really.
"I never call myself old but you kind of feel like, okay . . . " he pauses, then laughs, thinking about how to best phrase this dilemma. "I'm older than they are -- wiser than they are, I should say. That's part of it, though."
Kelly's wiser as well. He's eager to erase last season's memories -- the injuries, the lack of playing time -- with a fresh start that begins Sunday at Giants Stadium.
"I'm really excited," he said. "It's going to mean a whole lot just because it's been a long time sitting out all of last year. It's going to be a totally different story than it was last year, so I just can't wait."