Rob Kelley felt the need for a transformation this offseason. The Washington Redskins running back was plagued by injuries in 2017 and watched the team search for his replacement in the months that followed. So Kelley headed to the barber for a fresh start. Thirty minutes later, the nine years of dreadlock growth that flowed over his shoulder pads was chopped down to a tightly cropped coif.
The external change triggered a bit of an internal adjustment as well, and the New Orleans native arrived at the team’s offseason workouts saying this summer is a new beginning.
“I just wanted to try something different,” Kelley said. “I just had something going on within myself, and cutting my hair was just like a bold move to show that I’m making the changes that I need to make.”
The organization also was looking for a change this offseason. The Redskins haven’t had a run game ranked higher than 19th since 2013, when they were fifth. They ranked 28th in 2017 as Kelley (knee, ankle) and Chris Thompson (fractured fibula) landed on injured reserve.
Doug Williams, the Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel, repeatedly spoke about bringing in reinforcements to address the rushing woes, and then the team added Derrius Guice out of LSU with the draft’s 59th pick. Kelley said he wasn’t shocked and didn’t take it personally. The 2018 draft was actually the second consecutive year the team tried to fix its run game; Washington drafted Samaje Perine in the fourth round in 2017.
“I didn’t take it no type of way,” Kelley said. “At the end of the day, it’s a business. What do you expect? I hate to say it, but if I’m playing Madden and my running back is hurt, I’m going to get another running back. You’ve got to keep the train going. You can’t let one man stop the show. It’s our job to create our own value on this team. So, that’s what I’m doing.”
The Redskins wrapped up their second week of voluntary organized team activities Thursday, and Kelley has been the first back to work with the first team thus far. There have been rotations, but Kelley seems to be getting the first shot while Perine continues to grow in his second pro season and Guice learns about life in the NFL. Thompson continues to rehab and hasn’t practiced during OTAs, but Guice has shown plenty of energy and explosion. Kapri Bibbs, Byron Marshall and undrafted rookie Martez Carter are also getting reps, though Bibbs did not participate Wednesday when the session was open to media.
Coach Jay Gruden said he hasn’t yet thought about who will make the final cut.
“We’re looking for the total package,” Gruden said. “Obviously, each guy will have their own role, but for the most part, we’ll just play the best player. And at some point, special teams could play a role also. They’re all great kids. They’re all working extremely hard.”
Kelley, who’s listed at 233 pounds, said he feels lighter and faster and is just trying to get back into the swing of things. He and Thompson had long talks about staying positive and not letting injuries stunt their growth. Gruden said consistency is the biggest need for Kelley.
“Rob’s never been an issue as far as work ethic is concerned,” Gruden said. “He’s always gone out and done his job and been very engaging in the meetings, comes out here and takes what he learned in the meeting room and accepts the challenge and plays well. Nothing’s changed with the way he’s played. He’s accepted the challenge and done some really good things.”
Kelley joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and led the team with 704 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground. He managed just 194 yards and three touchdowns in seven games last season as his yards per carry dropped from 4.2 to 3.1.
The team loves Thompson, but he is more of a third-down back who’s a bigger threat on passing downs. Guice was brought in to help on early downs.
“It’s always motivating,” Kelley said with a smile. “When a new guy comes in, you seem to do things a little better. It’s always motivation. Guice is a great talent. … That was a first-round guy. Where they got him at [late in the second round], the organization did a great job.
“I think the ups and downs feel kind of normal to me. Coming from where I come from and where I’m at right now, I’ve been doing this the whole time. I never feel out of place. I never feel in a dark spot or nothing like that. I overcome obstacles every day, I feel like. So, this ain’t nothing new.”
“If you look at numbers the last couple years, he’s probably had the most rushing yards out of everybody,” Thompson said of Kelley. “You look at what he did his rookie year; you can’t discount him because he had injuries [last year]. I don’t think you say he’s maybe the odd man out because he just had a bad go at it last year. He’s no less the player than he was his rookie year.”
The Redskins would be ecstatic for that to be the case. Having Kelley return to his battering-ram ways to go with Guice’s natural talent, Thompson’s versatility and Perine’s growth would give the Redskins a good problem to have for a team that has struggled in the run game. Kelley has even shown improved pass-catching skills during OTAs.
There has been some frustration for the 25-year-old, but Kelley remains optimistic while others gun for his job.
“I know I [seem] like the forgotten guy,” Kelley said. “Long as I come in and work and do what I’m supposed to do, I think everything’s going to be all right for me.
“I did get frustrated at moments, but you realize in the NFL things happen and you’ve got to be able to move on and move forward from it. Not sit back and whine about it all day.”
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