Running back Robert Kelley couldn’t do enough to get selected in the draft when he was coming out of Tulane this year, but did just enough things right to have the Washington Redskins sign him afterwards. As most undrafted free agents go, Kelley had low odds to make the final roster, and yet he did that and much more after Kelley impressed in the preseason by showcasing excellent vision with an innate ability to make defenders miss.
Flash forward to the regular season and Redskins' starter Matt Jones was struggling with ball security. Backup Chris Thompson is a dynamic third down back, but can’t stay healthy enough to take first and second down carries.
This opened the door for Kelley to announce himself as a legitimate NFL player.
After getting 21 carries against the Cincinnati Bengals in a Week 8 tie, Kelley carried the football 22 more times against the Minnesota Vikings and their top five defense on Sunday. Kelley gained 97 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Looking at the game tape from this match, Kelley impressed enough to lock down the job as Washington’s starter at the position.
Is he prepared to handle this full-time and long-term?
Kelley's main strengths are his vision and his ability to slip tackles. On 66 carries, only two (or 3%) of his runs have been for a loss. Compare that to Jones where 10% of his 99 carries resulted in a loss. While the sample size is obviously small, it illustrates Kelley's ability to stay on his feet to keep drives alive.
An example can be seen in this inside zone split to the right. Kelley takes the handoff and tight end (85) Vernon Davis, a normally sound blocker, completely whiffs on his assignment. Kelley stays calm, hops over safety (22) Harrison Smith's dive, and turns a negative play into a positive one.
The Vikings front seven attempted to take advantage of the Redskins blown assignments multiple times during this game, however, Kelley was the reason they did not amount to anything. Both of the following plays should have been tackles for loss, but Kelley elusively slips the defenders.
In the first play, Kelley turns a two-yard loss into a three-yard gain, while in the second play, Kelley minimizes a three-yard loss to just a one-yard loss.
Over time these plays add up, keep drives alive, and put the team into better position for second and third down conversions.
Let's jump to a positively blocked play in the third quarter where Kelley gained 14 yards. On this outside zone run to the right, Washington uses tight end (86) Jordan Reed as the sift blocker to protect against a backside defender.
After the snap, Kelley takes the handoff, reading the defenders outside-in starting at (99) Danielle Hunter. (93) Shamar Stephen gets outside leverage on right guard (75) Brandon Scherff forcing the cutback inside. With (98) Linval Joseph closing the weakside A-gap between the left guard and the center, Kelley wisely cuts behind him. Linebacker (55) Anthony Barr mistakenly falls for Jordan Reed's sift block thinking he is going into the flat on a bootleg. This opens the hole for Kelley.
Kelley uses (34) Andrew Sandejo's momentum against him and slips the first tackle before lowering his pads and driving forward for two more yards. This play showed excellent blocking, some poor defensive play by Barr, and Kelley showing excellent elusiveness.
In the fourth quarter, Kelley gained 21 yards on another outside zone run with a sift block by Reed. Similar to the last play, another linebacker (57) Audie Cole misdiagnoses the play and chases Reed. This opens his responsible gap on the defensive line.
Kelley sprints through the hole untouched. He stays on his feet showing excellent balance avoiding (22) Smith's tackle before being taken down by Minnesota defenders.
Kelley is a natural runner and runs with good pad height. He keeps his feet moving while lowering his shoulders for contact. He also has good body lean to always fall forward. These traits might seem simple, but this is where Jones struggled.
If you were to point out the negatives of his game, his athleticism is the main issue. He wasn't invited to the combine, but he reportedly ran a 4.68 40-yard dash. For a big back, 4.50-4.55 is completely acceptable, but to be in the upper 4.6s, Kelley has to do everything else correctly to have a fighting chance in the NFL.
Take this outside zone to the right. If Kelley was simply faster there is a possibility he could have hit the hole between the right tackle and the right guard for a large gain.
Another negative is that he still needs to be more patient in his cuts to set up blocks. Most of these plays were fine, but he tends to cut too early which allows a backside defender to make a play sometimes.
There is nothing flashy about Kelley, but he does the small things right and is great at piecing cuts together while staying balanced to gain extra yards.
After his performance versus the Vikings, Kelley has firmly established himself as the lead tailback for the Redskins. Expect him to continue getting 20 carries a game if he stays healthy going forward.
The Seattle Seahawks would not face either team until the playoffs, but definitely be on the lookout for Robert Kelley in the future as general manager Scot McCloughan (formerly of the Seahawks) continues to build a competitive NFC team in the nation’s capital (that could share some similarities with the Seahawks.)