Redskins running back Rob Kelley is finally healthy and a little hungry. Maybe a little more focused, too.
Nobody is muscling him off the roster easily.
Rookie second-round pick Derrius Guice is expected to be the opening-day starter, which leaves Kelley searching for a role in a crowded backfield. Second-year back Samaje Perine is the short-yardage runner, and Chris Thompson is the third-down back.
Kelley, 25, was an undrafted phenom in 2016, but last season he endured an injury-induced sophomore slump. Kelley broke a rib in Week 2, hampering him for eight games until an MCL injury ended his season. He’s been largely forgotten by fans excited to get a glimpse of Guice’s potential.
But hold on — Kelley’s not done yet. He’s starred in offseason training activities, finding interior holes that always seemed shut to him last season. These practices aren’t full-contact, but Kelley is showing added aggressiveness and banging into linebackers.
“Eventually, [fans will] see the work I put in,” he said. “I just feel better.”
This is prove-it time. Barring injuries, there aren’t always opportunities for players to move up the depth chart in training camp. Practices and preseason games are too scripted.
Fortunately for Kelley, he has coach Jay Gruden’s interest again. Two years ago, Kelley was a true find out of Tulane. As a rookie, he started nine games and rushed for 704 yards and six touchdowns. In Kelley’s very first practice, Gruden mentioned No. 20 without knowing his name.
Last season, Kelley struggled to bounce off defenders. He gained just 194 yards and averaged a measly 3.1 yards per carry. He played in just seven games, and the Redskins searched for his replacement.
Now Gruden is giving Kelley one more chance, and the young back is responding well.
“Rob’s never been an issue as far as work ethic is concerned,” Gruden said.
Kelley’s “Fat Rob” nickname hasn’t been relevant since college. His long dreadlocks are now gone. He’s lost a few more pounds and looks a little quicker. What Gruden is looking for is “consistency in all phases” in a rushing offense that looks to be a more prominent part of the attack after ranking 28th and 21st in the league the past two years.
For Kelley, finding a role remains the top challenge.
“We’re looking for the total package,” Gruden said. “For the most part, we’ll just play the best player. It’s going to be a tough decision when that happens, but I’m not going to think about that now. I want to be fair to all of them, let them all have an opportunity.”
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