- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Like a lot of other Redskins, running back Robert Kelley ended the season on a down note.

After averaging more than 5 yards a carry during the Redskins’ 6-1-1 run from September to November, Kelley’s output dropped over the last six games, when the team went 2-4, to 3.3 yards per carry — including just 33 yards on 12 attempts in Sunday’s season-ender to the New York Giants.

Still, Kelley flashed enough ability that coach Jay Gruden said he sees the undrafted free agent as the team’s featured back again next season.

“I do, I do,” Gruden said. “Great, great year for him as far as a rookie coming in as a free agent, being thrown into the fire like he was and performing like he did. I think there’s a lot of improvement that’ll be made with Robert. He’s going to get stronger, even get in more better shape. He’s going to understand the 16-game season, what it entails, how demanding it is on his body. He’s going to get himself ready to go. But he’s shown great vision, great toughness in the hole, great ball security.”

Kelley may have the edge now, but Gruden told reporters this week he isn’t giving up on Matt Jones, the 2015 third-rounder who lost the starter’s job because of fumbling problems.

At just 23, Jones is still a young player who will have a chance in to come back and re-establish himself, Gruden said.

“He’s got to come back and compete,” Gruden said. “You know, we have depth charts. But, like I said, they’re all written in pencil. We have an eraser. We can erase it and change it. If he comes out and outperforms him, it’ll be his job. But he’s got to work at it and prove to us that he’s the guy for the job.”

Jones started the season with three fumbles on just 107 touches. For comparison, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott fumbled the ball just five times. Elliott touched the ball 247 more times than Jones.

Ball security has been an ongoing issue with Jones since the Redskins drafted him out of the University of Florida. Jones has fumbled the ball eight times on 243 carries in 20 games. That means Jones is fumbling the ball on 3.3 percent of his carries — much too high for a successful NFL running back.

Following a 10-carry, 27-yard performance on Oct. 23 against the Detroit Lions — a game in which Jones fumbled on the goal line — Gruden appeared to have had enough.

“We can’t keep addressing [Jones’ fumbling],” Gruden said postgame. “He’s got to understand the importance of the ball.”

Jones was out with a knee injury in the Redskins’ next game Oct. 30 against the Cincinnati Bengals in London. Kelley performed well in Jones’ absence. In the 27-27 tie, Kelley finished with 87 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown.

After the bye week, Jones was healthy enough to play. But with the emergence of Kelley, the effectiveness of backup Chris Thompson in the passing game and the importance of third-stringer Mack Brown on the special teams unit, suiting up Jones on game day was a luxury. He was a healthy scratch for the final eight games.

Ball security was critical factor in Kelley’s favor: In 168 carries, Kelley didn’t fumble the ball a single time. In fact, during Jones’ eight games of inactivity, Kelley, Thompson and Brown combined for 228 touches and a single Thompson fumble.

But what was also evident is just how successful the offense was when Kelley became the bell-cow back. In games where Kelley rushed the ball at least 16 times, the Redskins finished 4-0-1. In games in which Kelley ran the ball less than 16 times, Washington was 0-4.

Gruden is a big fan of what Thompson brings to the table in the passing game and as a blocking back. He also likes what Brown does on special teams. Kelley, Brown and Jones are all signed for next season. Thompson will be a restricted free agent.

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