Kelley — who has already prompted those typical outpourings of delight, plus questions about his potential as a starter — is now playing a near-annual part, after logging 99 yards on 22 preseason carries. To be honest, you might want to dial some of this back. Matt Jones is Washington’s starting running back, something that isn’t about to change barring another injury. Chris Thompson is Jones’s backup, and his role is also secure. Kelley is a third-stringer. You don’t usually get excited about a third-stringer.
Except can’t you imagine a future when this preseason hero veers away from his predecessors and gets a shot to actually contribute? I know, I know, but Jones has been injury-prone and inconsistent. Thompson has also battled various ailments. Kelley is an undrafted rookie who should be clawing for every preseason carry he can find, and yet he doesn’t figure to play much during the team’s final tuneup Wednesday night. Preseason heroes aren’t supposed to get a light workload in the final scrimmage, and teammates aren’t supposed to talk about them with this much certainty.
“The way it’s shaping up right now, with people banged up, he’s definitely going to contribute to this team in some form or fashion,” Trent Williams said on Tuesday. “Whether it be carrying the ball, or whether it be on special teams, I think he definitely has a place.”
So maybe this time it’s actually for real? Maybe this time the preseason hype is justified? Ask around about the undrafted kid with the unremarkable background — Kelley sometimes played fullback at Tulane — and you’ll hear variations of the same thing. He first attracted attention here for his blitz pickups and his quick understanding of the playbook. He never figured to get much of a chance, but when Thompson (and then Jones) (and then Keith Marshall) got hurt, he always showed up. He squares his shoulders well, and falls forward after contact. And while he’s made mistakes — teammates think he might still be overcompensating for once missing a blitz during a walk-through — he seems to have the temperament of a professional.
“A calm poise that’s really cool to be around,” said quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who has often shared the field with Kelley. “The moment never seems too big for him.”
“I was just paying attention to his field vision, the way he made cuts,” Williams said. “I think everybody was pretty much enamored by that. That’s just something that not every back has, the ability to see holes before they’re even there. That’s an innate, canny ability that he has.”
“His eyes didn’t get real big,” said backup quarterback Colt McCoy, who has also been paired with Kelley. “I appreciate that from young guys, because normally you’re telling them every play what they’ve got, who they’re picking up, pointing out guys. But with Rob, since early — and other quarterbacks who played with him got [the same] sense — he’s got a pretty good feel for what’s going on. He’s not a guy who you have to ever worry about something going wrong.”
“To me, he’s their second-best back,” former GM Charley Casserly said this week on 106.7 The Fan. “And what I really like about the guy is the guy’s feet, changing direction, explosion and instincts. I mean, I never watched this guy in college, but just watching him in preseason, this guy’s played well. So he’s clearly, to me, their second back.”
Which, in the modern NFL, would imply real-life carries. See, I’m doing it again, but there are reasons to at least wonder what might happen next. In each of the last two seasons, an undrafted rookie has emerged out of nowhere to lead his team in rushing: Thomas Rawls for Seattle in 2015 and Branden Oliver for San Diego in 2014. Thompson has already told Kelley he shouldn’t picture himself as a third running back, not with NFL attrition being what it is.
“I’m telling him, if you make this team, anything could happen,” Thompson said. “That’s the mindset I’ve got to keep working on with him.”
Even Kelley has noticed a difference over the past few weeks. He had no idea that fantasy football players are wondering if he’s a deep sleeper, but he knows that fans have heard of him. Many of them probably even know his uniform number. (It’s 22, which he shares — for now — with Deshazor Everett. You’re not supposed to get excited about players who share uniform numbers.) Friends originally told him his focus should be on impressing Washington’s coaches during special teams drills, “but I think I put myself in a position where they can count on me to carry the ball if I have to,” he said.
“I don’t want to get to the point where I’m putting pressure on myself, but it feels good to actually be known,” Kelley went on. “When I first got here, nobody knew who Rob Kelley was. The coaches didn’t even know my name.”
That, he clarified, was an exaggeration. But Jay Gruden did say that when Kelley arrived “we didn’t know a whole lot about him,” that he “didn’t have a lot of yards” in his collegiate career and hadn’t gotten many opportunities. (In 49 college games, Kelley gained 1,270 yards.)
“With the injuries we had and the lack of players that we had at that back position…he got the reps,” Gruden said. “And when you get the reps, [there are] two options: you can take advantage of them or you don’t. And he took advantage of them.”
Will there be real reps in the future? That might be out of Kelley’s hands. Gruden reiterated on Tuesday that Jones is the team’s top option. Thompson will be ready for week one. Higher-profile veterans around the league will be cut in the next few days. So maybe Kelley’s name will one day wind up on lists with Mason and Mitchell and Seastrunk, when the next preseason hero rolls around. But this time, it feels real.