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Skins Stats: Is Robert Kelley the Answer at Running Back?

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Should the Washington Redskins be comfortable with Robert Kelley holding down the RB1 spot in 2017 and beyond? A statistical look at Fat Rob's entire football career provides the answers.

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Undrafted free agent Robert Kelley came from out of nowhere last season and became the starting running back for the Washington Redskins midway through the year.

His 168 attempts, 704 yards, 29 first downs and 6 touchdowns led the team.    If you extrapolate the numbers that he posted in his nine starts (151 attempts, 601 yards and 6 touchdowns) over 16 games that would give him 268 attempts, 1,068 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Those are very impressive numbers for rookie.

Kelley's performance made a believer out of many fans and Redskins decision makers, including Jay Gruden.

On Monday, head coach Jay Gruden was asked if the Tulane product was a feature back in the NFL.

"I do, I do," said Gruden. "I think he played the last couple of games a little bit banged up. And he's one of the guys that I'm sure will probably have a scope when he's done at the end of the season. I think 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. I think that's a good starting point."

There is no question that Kelley exceeded expectations, but some are not as sold on the prospect of him becoming a long-term starter in the NFL.  It's a debate that has been discussed both here at Hogs Haven and by the media.

In an attempt to find the answer, I looked back at Robert Kelley's entire football career, spanning from his time in high school all the way up until the last game of the 2016 regular season.

HIGH SCHOOL

I'm sure that there are some who would question the validity of examining Kelley's time in high school and even in college, but I believe that it's worthwhile for a couple of reasons:

1) Like a college GPA on your resume, this information becomes less and less relevant the longer that you are a pro, but it is still useful early on in your career.

2) We need all the data that we can get when our NFL sample size consists of fewer than 350 snaps and 200 touches.

Like it or not, we're going to use all of the information at our disposal to figure this out.

In his career at O. Perry Walker High School, Kelley rushed the ball 404 times for 2,347 yards, 25 touchdowns and a 5.8 average.  He caught 28 balls for 242 yards, 3 scores and an 8.6-yard average.  I don't specialize in high school statistics, but those numbers look good, not world-beating.

According to Tracking Football, Kelley also participated in several other sports in high school (track, relay, etc.), which the site has found to be positively correlated with future football success in college and the NFL.

That's good news.  However, the issue is that Kelley performed below average relative to other college running backs in the majority of the results that Tracking Football recorded.

Robert Kelley did not receive a star rating above 3 and was not ranked higher than 65th at the running back position by any of the major recruiting services.  I could not find any evidence of a school other than Tulane giving Kelley a scholarship offer.  Those are both signs that colleges were not impressed with his athletic profile and high school performance.

COLLEGE

J.J.Zachariason of numberFire recently did a study of successful running backs in the NFL which sought to find out how these players performed in their final college seasons.  I compared the averages that he found to every one of Kelley's seasons at Tulane.  Every instance in which Kelley met or exceeded the baselines found by Zachariason is bolded in the table below.

Robert Kelley College numberFire Study
Statistic Average Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
Year n/a 2015 2013 2012 2011
Robert Kelley Age n/a 23 21 20 19
Attempts Per Game 19.18 5.42 8.17 6.75 5.69
Market Share (Attempts) 47.28% 16.84% 21.78% 29.45% 14.86%
Rushing Yards 1,330.62 232 420 286 332
Yards Per Carry 5.69 3.57 4.29 3.50 4.49
Market Share (Ru. Yards) 57.03% 15.44% 24.94% 53.86% 16.53%
Rushing TDs 13.68 1 3 0 2
Market Share (Ru. TDs) 52.49% 9.09% 20.00% 0.00% 10.53%
Receptions 22.94 6 18 46 16
Receptions Per Game 1.86 0.50 1.50 3.83 1.23
Market Share (Receptions) 10.13% 2.93% 8.22% 14.89% 6.32%
Receiving Yards 211.52 33 176 340 178
Market Share (Rec. Yards) 7.40% 1.37% 7.34% 10.11% 6.24%

As you can see, Kelley only hit these marks in 5 of 48 instances, and all 5 came in the receiving department during his sophomore season.  Kelley's sophomore campaign took place nearly five years ago.  Remember that most successful NFL runners exceed all or most of those numbers in their final college seasons alone.

He never rushed for more than 420 yards or gained more than 630 yards from scrimmage in a season during his four years on Tulane's football team.

Over the course of 50 games and 12 starts, Fat Rob was only able to muster three games of 60 or more rushing yards (versus Hawaii, Louisiana Monroe and Louisiana Tech) and four games of over 100 yards from scrimmage (versus UAB, Hawaii, Louisiana Monroe and Louisiana Tech).

He never rushed for more than 92 yards (Hawaii) or totaled more than 125 yards from scrimmage (UAB) in a game during his college career.

Player Profiler has Kelley's final college season dominator rating of 11% and yards-per-carry average falling in the 5th and 0th percentile among NFL running backs.  In case you were wondering, 0th percentile essentially means the worst or one of the very worst numbers in a data set.

All of this probably had something to do with the fact that he was never really the undisputed starter.  Check out his rankings among Tulane's running backs below.

Robert Kelley Tulane RB Rankings
Class Year Age Starts Rk Att Rk Ru Yds Rk Ru TD Rk
Freshman 2011 19 Last 2nd 2nd t-2nd
Sophomore 2012 20 2nd t-1st 1st t-2nd
Junior 2013 21 2nd 2nd 2nd 2nd
Senior 2015 23 1st 3rd 3rd t-3rd

Kelley only led the Green Wave in starts, rushing attempts and rushing yards on one occasion each.  He never led the team in more than two of those categories in a single season.

It's not as if he was competing with tons of NFL talent either.  Orleans Darkwa was the only NFL player that Tulane had in the backfield, and he graduated after the 2013 season.

ATHLETICISM

Kelley's showing at his pro day was very similar to his college production, in that both were extremely underwhelming.  In the following table I compared his 40-yard dash, vertical jump, short shuttle, 3-cone drill, bench press and SPARQ-X score to 114 other NFL running backs.

This set of backs consists of nearly 100 active NFL runners and about 15 of the top prospects coming out of college this year.  The table is sorted from lowest to highest by Player Profiler's SPARQ-X score.  SPARQ is a composite metric for overall athletic ability.  The table is sortable and expandable.

Kelley's rankings in the group for each of the categories is listed below.  Also, speed score (weight adjusted speed), agility score (shuttle + 3 cone), explosion score (vertical jump + broad jump) and SPARQ-X percentile values and rankings have been added in.

Robert Kelley Testing Results & Rankings (of 115)
40 10 Speed
Value 4.68 2.71 94.2
Ranking 7th Worst 17th Worst
18th Worst
Shuttle 3-Cone Agility
Value 4.63 7.19 11.82
Ranking 2nd Worst 16th Worst 5th Worst
Vertical Broad Explosion
Value 29.5 110 139.5
Ranking 6th Worst 7th Worst 6th Worst
Bench SPARQ-x Percentile
Value 16 86.5 1st
Ranking 20th Worst 2nd Worst 2nd Worst

Yes, you read all of that right.  Kelley's best showing in any of these athletic testing metrics was 20th worst.  He ranked in the bottom ten in 40-yard dash, short shuttle, agility score, vertical jump, broad jump, explosion score and SPARQ-X.  Only Jalen Richard had a worse short shuttle time and a lower SPARQ score.

Here is how his vertical jump, broad jump and short shuttle numbers rank among every running back that has ever participated in those drills at the combine: 15th worst, 34th worst and 4th worst.  Wow.

I think those terrible results in the vertical and broad jumps make it fair to say that Kelley is probably one of the least explosive NFL running backs of the last 20 years.

All in all, Robert Kelley is the most unathletic starting running back in the NFL.  He is also one of the least athletic backs in the entire league regardless of depth chart position.

The only other running backs that tested nearly as poorly as Kelley did were Jalen Richard, Alfred Blue, Matt Asiata, Theo Riddick, Kapri Bibbs and Antonio Andrews.  Every one of those players has flashed potential, but have yet to consistently perform at a high level in the league.

I'll end this section with a simple, yet spot-on quote from NFL athleticism and SPARQ expert Zach Whitman.

KELLEY'S AGE

You might think that Kelley is one of the younger backs in the league because of the fact that he just finished his rookie season.  If so, then you thought wrong.

Kelley will be 24.9 on September 1st of this year.  He will turn 25 in October, which makes 2017 his age-25 season.

Take a look at how Kelley compares to other projected 2017 starting running backs in this regard.

Projected 2017 NFL Starting Running Backs & Age Relative to Robert Kelley
Starters - 1 Starters - 2 Starters - 3 Possible Starters Top Free Agents
Younger Older 1 > Year Older Younger Older
Rookie 1 Carlos Hyde Jerick McKinnon Paul Perkins Eddie Lacy
Rookie 2 Lamar Miller Devonta Freeman Kenneth Dixon Latavius Murray
Rookie 3 C.J. Anderson Le'Veon Bell T.J. Yeldon Jamaal Charles
Ezekiel Elliot Mark Ingram David Johnson Ameer Abdullah LeGarrette Blount
Todd Gurley Dough Martin Spencer Ware Ty Montgomery Adrian Peterson
Jordan Howard LeSean McCoy
Rawls/Prosise DeMarco Murray
Jay Ajayi Jonathan Stewart
Melvin Gordon Matt Forte
Isaiah Crowell Frank Gore

It appears likely that more than half of next season's RB1s will either be younger than Kelley or less than a year older than him.

This is not a good look for Fat Rob for several reasons

  • This really makes you wonder why a 23-year old Kelley didn't dominate in his senior year at Tulane.  He was playing against mostly non-power five players that were probably two years younger than him on average.
  • Running back is a young man's position. 
  • Kelley's bruising, between-the-tackles style is not conducive to above-average longevity.
  • The most successful backs typically break out at a younger age, and I'm not sure if we can call Kelley's 2016 a break-out year.

NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE

Now for the most important part of this study: actual NFL production.  Since this section will contain the most vital information, I've broken it up into sub-categories under "Pros" and "Cons" sections.

That is correct.  I did, in fact, just say that I will be discussing some positive aspects of Robert Kelley's NFL career.  Believe it or not, but this is not a takedown piece of Kelley.  There just simply hasn't been much of anything good to say about him up until this point.

Unless otherwise stated, the following rankings will come from the 44 running backs that ran the ball 95 or more times in the 2016 regular season.

NFL Pros

He Rarely Loses Yardage

Remember how everyone said that Robert Kelley rarely lost yardage on his runs last season?  Well, those people were right.  He rushed for at least one yard on 141 of his 168 carries.  That's a positive gain on a whopping 84% of his runs!  That ranks 13th best in our group of 44 halfbacks.

If that doesn't get you excited then consider that only the following players in the group had a better percentage than Kelley on more carries: Frank Gore, Le'Veon Bell, Mark Ingram, Lamar Miller, Ezekiel Elliot and Spencer Ware.

Tackle Breaker Extraordinaire

Perhaps the primary reason that Kelley always gains positive yards is that he breaks so many tackles.  Fat Rob trucked his way to the 12th most missed/broken tackles in the league despite only starting in nine games.  His yards after contact average and missed tackles per attempt marks ranked 10th and 3rd in this cohort respectively.

Jonathan Stewart, Jay Ajayi and Mark Ingram were the only other runners to break tackles on a similar percentage of their rushing attempts.

Robert Kelley Tackle Breaking & Yards After Contract
YAC MT MT/Att
Value 2.8 35 0.21
Ranking 10 12 3rd

Fat Rob Never Fumbles

Sometimes I'll say a guy never does something and it really means almost never.  This is not one of those times, because Kelley really never fumbles.

In fact, Robert Kelley has not fumbled once in any game (preseason or regular season) since his junior season at Tulane, which was almost four years ago.

Only 11 other backs in the 95-plus carry group did not fumble the ball once this year, and just two of them (Jeremy Hill and Rashad Jennings) started in more than 7 games.

This is a far cry from the ball protection that Washington got out of Matt Jones, who has fumbled the ball more often than almost every top running back in the league so far in his young career.

Extenuating Circumstances

Top Offensive Line

Before we move on to the cons, I want to take a moment to consider the fact that Kelley had a pretty gravy setup to work with in 2016.  For starters the Redskins have a great O-line.

He ran behind an offensive line that featured three players (Trent Williams, Morgan Moses and Brandon Scherff) that ranked in the top 20th percentile in PFF run-blocking grade at their positions.  Both Williams and Scherff made the Pro Bowl, making the Redskins just one of seven teams with multiple Pro Bowl offensive linemen last year.

The line also ranked in the top six in the following Football Outsiders metrics: adjusted line yards (6th), power success rate (3rd) and stuff rate (3rd).  Pro Football Focus ranked the line the seventh best in the NFL last year.

Elite Passing Game

We also must note that most teams were probably focused on the Redskins deadly passing attack and not on their running game.  The Skins' passing attack finished seventh or better in yards, yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, completion percentage, expected points, passer rating and DVOA.

This doesn't mean we can take away from everything that Kelley accomplished; but we must at least consider whether or not the bulk of his success was the product of his environment and if his weaknesses would've been magnified with a lesser supporting cast.

NFL Cons

Kelley's Lack of Big Plays

As was pointed out earlier, Fat Rob is one of the least explosive running backs in recorded history.  Kelley's extremely low number and percentage of big runs backs that idea up.

Robert Kelley Big Rushing Play % and Rankings (off 44)
5+ Yds % 10+ Yds % 20+ Yds %
# of Runs 45 15 4
% of Runs 26.8% 8.9% 2.4%
% Rankings 40th 29th 19th

Kelley ranks in or near the bottom of the barrel in percentage of 5 and 10-yard runs.  His ranking in 20-yard rush percentage is much better, but the fact that he only went for 20 or more four times really kills any excitement that you might get from his slightly above-average ranking here.

That's great that he rarely loses yardage, but if all of his gains are going for between one and four yards then how much value are his runs really adding to the offense?

Middling Rushing Efficiency

Kelley wasn't horrible from an efficiency standpoint; but, then again, he wasn't great either.  Check out his rankings and numbers versus the group average in yards per attempt, first-down percentage, success rate and net expected points per rush.

Robert Kelley Efficiency Stats & Rankings (of 44)
Y/A FD% Success Rate NEP/Rush
Values 4.19 17.3% 48% -0.02
Group Average 4.18 22.2% 47% -0.01
Rankings 21st 37th 22nd 24th

He's perfectly average in most of these categories, but his first-down percentage of 22% was borderline abysmal.  Only Devontae Booker, T.J. Yeldon, Matt Forte, Doug Martin, Rashad Jennings and Jerick McKinnon were worse in that department.

What's particularly troubling is how poorly Kelley compares to some of his own teammates in terms of rushing efficiency.  J.J. Zachariason provides us with another assist by illustrating this point in the following tweet.

A Few Flashes of Brilliance Instead of Sustained Consistency

Kelley's stint as a starter began with a boom, as the big rookie rushed for 321 yards, 4 touchdowns and an average of 4.8 yards per carry in his first three games leading the Skins' backfield.

His final game in that stretch was a 137-yard, 3-touchdown outburst in a blowout of the Green Bay Packers.  By the way, this was Kelley's first 100-yard rushing game since high school (including preseason).  That's a gap of about six years!  That game was also his only NFL start in which he averaged over 4.5 yards per carry.

After the Packers game, it looked as if the Redskins had found their answer at running back.  Few people would've guessed that Kelley would fizzle down the stretch after that performance, but that is exactly what he did.

He ran for just 280 yards, 2 touchdowns and a 3.3 average in his final six starts.  That's 41 fewer yards, 4 fewer touchdowns and an average of almost 1.5 yards less than what he posted in his first three starts.

The level of competition he faced also made a major impact on his success, or lack thereof.  Kelley averaged just over 30 yards per game and 3.3 yards per rush against opponents ranked in the top ten in rushing DVOA defense.

He's the Furthest Thing from a Receiving RB

Robert Kelley looks to be an average runner at best, and on top of that, he provides little to nothing in the receiving game.

For the following set of rankings our group of players is expanded from 44 to 54 running backs.  This new group is comprised of Kelley and every running back that was targeted 25 or more times in 2016.

Robert Kelley Receiving Efficiency Stats & Rankings (of 54)
Y/G Y/Rec Y/Tgt NEP/Tgt DVOA Catch % Drop Rate
Values 5.9 6.8 6.0 0.21 -4.9% 66.7% 23.5%
Group Average 20.2 7.9 4.6 0.33 0.0% 76.0% 5.7%
Rankings Worst 40th 6th Worst 42nd 33rd 2nd Worst Worst

These numbers speak for themselves.  Fat Rob ranks in the bottom 15 in six of these seven key receiving efficiency metrics.  He's also bottom six in four of them.

The game charters at Pro Football Focus back up what those rankings are telling us.  Kelley's PFF receiving grade and pass-blocking grade both ranked 50th among all qualifiers at the running back position last year.

And if you're holding out hope that he can improve in this area because of his excellent receiving production as a sophomore at Tulane, then I would caution you to temper those expectations.

That happened over five years ago, and Kelley has recorded 6 fewer receptions and 43 fewer receiving yards between his junior, senior and rookie (including preseason) years combined than he did as a sophomore.  Rob the receiver looks to be long gone.

CONCLUSION

Robert Kelley can give you some nice things at the running back spot.  His toughness allows him to break tackles at an incredible rate and to almost always gain positive yardage, and his ability to hold onto the ball is key in a league where ball protection and limiting turnovers is paramount.

Simply put, he doesn't make mistakes and he's not going to truly cost you any games.  The problem is that he's not going to win you many games either.

His subpar production as an amateur athlete, already somewhat advanced age and historic lack of athleticism relative to his peers back that idea up and show us just how limited his ceiling might be.

Despite what it might seem like, Kelley has actually been mediocre at best in the NFL.  He doesn't make enough big plays, he's not especially efficient or consistent as a rusher and he offers you next to nothing in the passing game.

In all likelihood the Redskins will still not possess a top-tier defense next season, and when you consider that in combination with the fact that the offense may lose its starting quarterback and top two receivers, it becomes clear that the team will need to lean more heavily on the running game in 2017.

Based on everything that we've seen here, I'm simply not sold on the idea that Robert Kelley - or any other back on the roster for that matter - is up to the task.

It seems clear that the Washington Redskins need to devote more resources to the running back position.  After all, they currently have invested less draft and financial capital at the position than almost every other club in the league.  I guess that's why they are still searching for answers at running back.  You get what you pay for.

What do you think the Redskins should do at running back?  Voice your opinion in the comments section and via the poll below.  Projected draft rounds for college players and estimated APY for free agents were taken from CBS Sports and Spotrac respectively.

*All statistics are courtesy of 247 Sports, CBS Sports, ESPN, Football Outsiders, Mockdraftable, NFL.com, NFL Draft Scout, numberFire, Player Profiler, Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, Rivals, Scout, Sports Reference, Spotrac, Tracking Football and Tulane Green Wave*