The Redskins go into OTAs with competition for jobs and depth chart position at several spots on the field. Over the next week, Redskins insiders Rich Tandler and J.P. Finlay look at how these competitions stand right now and they each make the case for a potential winner.
Last year, undrafted rookie Rob Kelley was the hunter. He bided his time on the bench, watching Matt Jones as the starter for the first seven games of the season. When Jones faltered, Kelley was ready to step in. He rushed for 87, 97, and 137 yards in his first three games as the starter but he didn’t top 76 yards after that. Still, Jay Gruden has heaped praise on Kelley all offseason and said that he will line up with the first team when OTAs get underway later this month.
But Gruden didn’t love Kelley enough to bypass his potential replacement in the draft. After buzz that they might go after a running back in the first round, the Redskins took Samaje Perine out of Oklahoma in the fourth round. Kelley is now the hunted. Perine is a powerful runner who should immediately get snaps on short yardage and near the goal line. But he could end up being more than a fantasy touchdown vulture for Kelley.
And the winner is . . .
Tandler: I don’t see any way that Kelley is not the running back on the field for the first offensive play of the year against the Eagles, making him the “starter.” After that, all bets are off. How it unfolds as the season wears on will be interesting to watch. Kelley was a great story last year but he was just an OK performer. His average of 4.2 yards per carry was 19th among qualifying backs in the NFL. In his nine games as a starter he averaged 3.98 per carry, which would have ranked 26th. A middle of the pack performance should not land Kelley on the bench but it should have Gruden and company looking for more.
The improvement could come from Kelley stepping up in his second season. Or it could come from Perine, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry in his four seasons at Oklahoma. Perine needs to translate that to the pros, of course, and that’s not a given. But he should get a shot and be a part of a three-man running back committee (with Chris Thompson getting some chances as the third-down back). We will see how it shakes out over the course training camp, the preseason, and when the games start to count.
Finlay: The rush to annoint Perine needs to slow down a bit. As Tandler said, the former Sooner will help immediately in short yardage and particularly at the goal line, but this will remain Kelley's job. Folks around Redskins Park have been impressed with Kelley's offseason work, first rehabbing from surgery to clean up his knee, and over the last few weeks, his time in the weight room. The word is "Fat Rob" will no longer be deserving of the nickname, as he has gotten stronger in advance of the 2017 season.
A humble, undrafted rookie last season, Kelley should be able to maintain his quick feet to the hole, and ability to avoid defenders, that Gruden liked so much in 2016. Thompson will continue to be a key part of the Redskins offense as well. Pencil him in for five to eight touches per game, and occasionally more based on matchups.
Perine will help the 'Skins in the red zone, and the team needs it. He scored 49 touchdowns in three seasons at Oklahoma, and Washington can use that type of productivity near the goal posts. Remember, however, that Perine is leaving the wide open Big 12, and Oklahoma's spread offense, for an NFL with much, much tougher defenses. Often the hardest part for rookie running backs in the NFL is to adjust to the speed of pass rushers, and understand where to be in pass protection. Perine is strong - the strongest RB in the 2017 Draft - but the knowledge of blitz pickup will have to come quick if he's going to truly push Kelley for carries.
It's also a bit wild to think of 2015 third-round pick Matt Jones as an afterthought, but he is. Jay Gruden had to be reminded of Jones' presence on the roster during a media session in Arizona, and reports showed the Redskins tried to trade their former RB1 around the draft. With Kelley, Thompson, Perine and Mack Brown, there is a real question if Jones makes the roster. A big body with good speed, Jones has a lot of potential in the NFL. Whether that gets harnessed, in D.C. or elsewhere, will also be worth watching.
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