Redskins' Second-Year Receivers Have Yet to Catch On

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

In the 2008 NFL draft, the Redskins selected two wide receivers in the second round, hoping one might quickly emerge into a starting -- and preferably a starring -- role. Four games into the 2009 season, neither has made the impact coaches had hoped.

Malcolm Kelly, who earned the starting flanker spot during the preseason, has posted worse numbers than every No. 2 wide receiver in the league, with the exception of Oakland Raiders rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey. And through four games, Devin Thomas has just one catch for seven yards.

"People do group us together all the time, and they just want it right now," Kelly said of fans' growing frustrations. "But like I said, it's going to happen when it's going to happen."

Thus far, it hasn't. Kelly is fifth on the team in receiving, with six catches and 65 yards. He revealed Wednesday that he's been bothered by ligament damage in his right thumb since the first play of the St. Louis Rams' game two weeks ago, and Coach Jim Zorn said he expects Thomas to see more playing time Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

"My plans aren't necessarily to play [Kelly] less because of his thumb," Zorn said, "it's just Devin's coming on as well."

Zorn doesn't anticipate a change in the starting lineup but said that he likes how Thomas has progressed since the regular season began, "even though he hasn't been involved that much," he said.

"[Devin's] been coming on at practice, giving greater effort, paying attention to those things that will earn him the right to be on the field," Zorn said.

Kelly said he hasn't necessarily been limited in practice but does experience severe pain with every catch.

"But I have enough strength in it to catch the ball and hold onto the ball," he said. "But afterwards, I get up and it's just like pain starts shooting through it."

Kelly, who was limited to just five games last year and had microfracture surgery on his knee following the season, said the team's training staff has told him that he's at least three weeks away from playing pain-free and taking the field without tape on his thumb.

"During the week, sometimes when the ball hits it, it kind of feels a certain way -- actually it feels pretty bad," he said. "It's not like I can't go out and play a practice or nothing like that. They just try to tape it up as good as they can. And then, come game time, you get that little candy shot in there, hopefully it helps it out a little bit."

He played through the pain during last weekend's game against the Bucs and had his worst performance of the young season: zero catches, zero yards. Quarterback Jason Campbell only targeted him on two occasions -- once into double coverage, which resulted in an interception for the Bucs.

Coaches haven't pinpointed one problem. Timing hasn't been right, routes haven't been perfect, Kelly's speed is slower in games than at practices, and the receiver is struggling to separate himself from defensive backs. Though Campbell and Kelly worked together throughout the offseason, running route after route, something isn't clicking.

"I still think that I'm getting used to Jason and Jason is getting used to me," Kelly said. "And practice is one thing, but you go out there in a game and it's totally different. It's a total different vibe, you got so much different stuff going on. I feel like we're getting closer and closer every week."

Said Campbell: "Definitely feel confident throwing the ball to him and definitely feel confident that his day is going to come where he starts to have these big catches in these big games. Just got to continue to keep pushing him and understanding that it's all a process."

Compared with other second-year receivers, that process hasn't been a quick one. The 2008 draft was not necessarily a great one for wide receivers. Of the nine receivers selected in the second round, only three are starting. Denver's Eddie Royal and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson -- both selected after Thomas but before Kelly -- have already grown into impact players for their respective teams. A round later, Chicago selected Earl Bennett, who currently leads the Bears with 200 yards on 15 catches, and the New York Giants picked up Mario Manningham, who has 306 yards and two touchdowns on 18 receptions.

Many Redskins fans were upset the team ignored its offensive line needs in that draft. Only two linemen were selected in the second round, and both Chilo Rachal (San Francisco) and Mike Pollack (Indianapolis) are starting at right guard.

The Redskins used a third second-round pick in 2008 on tight end Fred Davis, who has 10 yards on three receptions. Last week against the Bucs, the trio of Redskins second-rounders combined for minus-1 yard on just one catch. (Thomas didn't have a ball thrown his direction).

"I don't think it's on us to lift the offense up," Kelly said. "I mean, yeah, we can help the offense, but as far as me to just say, 'The only way this offense is going to get going is me, Devin and Fred have to come out and have 100-yard games,' I'm not going to say that. Because the thing is, one player can't make this offense go."

On Wednesday, Zorn said he's comfortable with the progress of the young receivers but doesn't think they're above scrutiny.

"I judge them all the time. I'm a big critic," he said. "We're still working on things. Malcolm's been working on a lot of things, at being explosive off the line of scrimmage, getting in and out of breaks. We haven't been able to get him the ball near as much as we'd like to, so he's a work in progress."

Zorn said he doesn't look at Kelly and Thomas as typical second-year receivers. Kelly battled injuries last season, appearing in only five games. The pair combined for just 18 catches.

"I look at these guys a little bit different, though," Zorn said. "I look at them as guys who are in their first year. It took them a while to get the adjustment. I can't explain why, as far as some guys getting it faster than others."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company