Rob Kelley, right, makes a reception during a practice at Redskins Park. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

The Redskins coaches and talent evaluators were sitting there thinking, “We like what we saw from our running game in the second half of the season, but we think we can do better.”

It’s funny, because Rob Kelley – the guy that had played a large role in the second-half rushing improvement – was thinking the same thing this offseason.

But while his bosses were evaluating draft prospects, and eventually pulled the trigger on a kid they believe has starting capabilities, Kelley was saying, “It’s me that can and will get better.”

This offseason, the second-year pro – who went undrafted out of Tulane, and wound up starting the final nine games for Washington while rushing for 704 yards and six touchdowns on 168 carries – has spent his time improving his body, his mind and his physical tools.

Kelley – known since college as “Fat Rob” – spent the last several months working to lean up and get stronger. The 6-foot back still weighs around 228 pounds, but improving his diet and working with Redskins strength and conditioning coach Chad Englehart allowed him to add muscle and trim fat. In so doing, he lowered his body fat by six percent.

Kelley definitely looks svelte and is moving better than he already was. He believes his improved physical condition will lead to greater durability and effectiveness late in games and late in the season.

Kelley also has focused on improving his pass-catching skills. Last season he had just 12 catches on 18 targets (most of those incompletions came from drops), and Kelley knew he needed to correct that problem. Already in practices, he has looked more sure-handed than last season.

This time last year, he started turning heads as an unknown former college fullback buried on the depth chart. Now he’s turning heads while perched atop Washington’s depth chart and determined to distance himself from the pack.

“I told him today, I joked around and said, ‘Last year at this time you were the ninth-string running back for God’s sakes,’ and now he’s the guy,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “So it’s exciting to see how far he’s come in a short period of time. With that experience comes confidence and I think he’s more confident with every rep that he takes, with every path, with every course that he takes at running back, with his protections, with his routes. You become more comfortable at the running back position when you’re not thinking about, ‘Right foot back, left foot stutter step, drop step,’ all of that stuff. ‘Am I aiming at the outside leg of the tackle, inside leg of the tight end? Where am I going?’ Now it’s just natural to him. He can be a runner and he’s very gifted in that regard as far as finding holes and running through people.”

Kelley didn’t flinch when the Redskins drafted Samaje Perine with one of their fourth-round picks. At the time of his selection, there was talk the former Oklahoma back could wind up starting. But Kelley never worried, and he has embraced Perine’s addition while still viewing himself as the best option on the team.

“It really wasn’t a reaction,” Kelley said. I think it would’ve been different if it was a first or second-round guy. Not to say that Perine isn’t good. Perine is awesome. He puts pressure on me to up my game. And looking around this league, it’s really not a one-back league anymore. There’s a lot of guys sharing rushes out there. Whatever it takes to help the team win. I’m not the only guy that can help the team win.”

Despite Perine’s promise, he is still feeling his way along during offseason practices. But even once the rookie is acclimated, Kelley says he isn’t threatened.

“I don’t look at it as pressure,” Kelley said. “I just want to make a jump from last year and get better. I’ve already proved I can play. I just want to show I can get better.”

Based on Kelley’s approach to the offseason, and the drive and confidence with Perine on the roster, third-down back Chris Thompson expects a lot.

“Rob has looked really good. … He’s out here practicing different. He understands everything better being in the system another year now,” said Thompson, a fourth-year vet and leader of the running back group. “He had 700 yards and pretty much just played the second half of the season. So him getting a full 16 games, he could do some big things this year. I think, at the end of [the preseason], if he’s the starter and it’s his job for the rest of the year, he could be one of the top backs in the league.”

When the Redskins switched last year from former starter Matt Jones to Kelley, one of the main areas of improvement the Redskins experienced involved production on first downs. After frequently finding themselves in second-and-long situations because of a lack of production on first downs, the Redskins improved with Kelley in the backfield. Gruden routinely praised his knack for getting positive carries and avoiding taking losses on first downs.

Washington finished the year ranked 11th in league, averaging 4.78 yards per first down rushing attempt. But the Redskins want better, and Kelley believes that’s possible thanks largely to a greater understanding of the offense.

“This offense has to run the ball because a lot of our stuff works off play-action,” Kelley said. “Just limiting negative runs. As long as you can keep the offense in second-and-5, second-and-6, you’re keeping the offense in good hands. It’s trusting your reads and your linemen. If you stay true to your reads, you’ll at least get three or four yards.”