Malcolm Kelly saw the logic. A receiver’s transition from college to the NFL requires learning a new playbook, competing against cornerbacks and safeties more gifted than those in the Big 12 and becoming an efficient downfield blocker.
Kelly must have his hands full, right?
“Learning curve? It’s football,” the former Oklahoma standout said Monday. “It’s not really as hard as it seems.”
Maybe so, but the adaptation for Kelly and fellow Redskins rookie Devin Thomas has appeared difficult, a common occurrence for first-year receivers. Whereas rookie running backs often make an impact if given the work, receivers tend to need at least a year to settle in.
Of the 10 receivers selected in last spring’s second round - no receivers were chosen in the first - only Denver’s Eddie Royal (63 catches) and Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson (53) rank in the NFL’s top 50 pass catchers. Royal’s five touchdowns and Jackson’s 775 yards lead the group. Thomas is fifth with 11 catches; Kelly’s three catches are still more than Cincinnati’s Jerome Simpson (one) and Tampa Bay’s Dexter Jackson (none).
The development of Jackson and Royal accelerated when they stayed healthy and played regular snaps. Thomas was injured in training camp, and Kelly fought a knee problem throughout the first half of the regular season.
“You can’t compare them to [Jackson] because he’s been in their offense since the jump and hasn’t missed a beat, and that’s what you want - get the high draft pick in and watch them take off,” receiver Antwaan Randle El said.
As a rookie with Pittsburgh in 2002, Randle El moved from quarterback to receiver and played in every game, totaling 47 receptions, 19 rushes and eight pass attempts. As the Steelers’ third receiver behind Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, Randle El made the transition quickly.
“I saw the light early because I had to play every position,” he said. “And I made my mistakes. It took a while and I took some lumps, but once I got it, I got it. But I was healthy and playing. … You can’t learn it when you’re hurt by just reading the book. You have to be involved in it.”
A hamstring injury sidelined Thomas for the Redskins’ first two preseason games, which would have been a chance to get work since the starters don’t last through the first quarter. Through the first nine games, Thomas benefited from Kelly’s absence by averaging around 20 snaps a game, including 27 against Arizona and Pittsburgh and 26 at Dallas.
When Kelly returned against Seattle, Thomas played only five snaps compared with 31 for Kelly. In last week’s loss to the Giants, Kelly was in for 26 plays and Thomas 18. The duo hasn’t become a big part of the passing game chiefly because Jason Campbell’s first three options are Santana Moss, tight end Chris Cooley and Randle El, who have combined for 68 percent of the Redskins’ catches.
Through 12 games, Thomas unofficially has been the intended target 17 times and Kelly nine times.
“They’ve made strides,” Randle El said. “They just have to continue to do it and get the feel for playing the NFL game. It’s not like the college game.”
For a running back, the NFL is more similar to college, allowing players to make an instant impact. From 2005 to 2007, 19 rookie running backs finished among the league’s top 50 rushers, including 10 of the top 47 in 2006. During that same time, only two true receivers finished in the top 50 in receptions: Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe (70 in 2007) and New Orleans’ Marques Colston (70 in 2006). Running back/receiver Reggie Bush’s 88 catches ranked 10th in 2006.
This year, five running backs rank among the top 25 in yardage.
“A running back is confined to the backfield, and he has places to run and protection rules [to learn],” coach Jim Zorn said. “A receiver not only has a route to run on one side but also on the other side of the field. He not only runs it vs. a guy who is [out of coverage] but against a guy who is [in coverage]. And he has to run a different route if the defensive backs rotate up or back. There are so many things they have to think about, and if you do think about them, you won’t get open.
“That’s why pros like Santana Moss gain so much because at the snap of the ball they make their bodies do what they should. It takes time.”