Bryan Kehl couldn’t believe it. He had finished second on the team in tackles last preseason, tied for second in sacks and had returned an interception 43 yards. He had proven himself over five seasons with the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams. And yet, the 28-year-old inside linebacker from BYU was one of the Redskins’ final cuts last summer.
“The NFL’s hard to understand,” said Kehl, who lost out to captain London Fletcher, rising starter Perry Riley, Pro Bowl special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander and fourth-round draft pick Keenan Robinson in the battle for what turned out to be just four jobs at his position. “I played the best football I ever played my whole life in the preseason last year and it’s the first time I didn’t make the team.”
Kehl said what made his release even harder to accept was that he knew that Washington’s coaches liked him better than had the coaches in New York or St. Louis. And yet he was still out of a job for a month until he was signed by Kansas City.
“I was absolutely surprised when Bryan was cut,” said safety Reed Doughty, the senior member of Washington’s defense and special teams. “I thought he had made the team before he played great in our last preseason game.”
When the Chiefs let Kehl go on Nov. 27, the Redskins, having lost Robinson to a season-ending torn pectoral muscle, grabbed him.
“[Bryan] really handled himself well when he was here both on special teams [and at] linebacker,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “He’s very bright, very competitive. “We’re very fortunate that he was out there.”
Indeed. Kehl was credited with eight special teams tackles in Washington’s final five games. The six players with more for the season were with the Redskins all year. Only Alexander had more per-game.
So it wasn’t a coincidence that Kehl re-signed less than a week after Alexander jumped to Arizona as a free agent last month. The Redskins had offered the same minimum contract a couple of weeks earlier, but with Alexander gone, Kehl “jumped on it.”
With Fletcher turning 38 next month and likely in his final season, Kehl will compete with Robinson to be the first inside linebacker off the bench and perhaps the four-time Pro Bowl pick’s successor.
“I really believe that I can be an outstanding player on defense,” said the 6-foot-2, 244-pound Kehl, who has started just five of his 67 career games. “With the Giants and the Rams, the defensive coaches had a philosophy that linebackers need to go hit blockers. That’s not the way I play. [Redskins defensive coordinator] Jim Haslett has the philosophy that linebackers go make plays. That’s the way I play. I think I have a better knack for defense than special teams. Had I been drafted by a team that had Jim Haslett, I think I’d be a five-year starter right now. My best asset is my athleticism. Lorenzo has a knack for special teams. I would beat him down there on kickoffs, but he would get to the ball.”
The Redskins will be thrilled if Kehl can make up for much of the loss of Alexander, the NFL’s top tackler on special teams who also served as the captain of those units, a locker room leader and union rep.
“We’re going to miss Lorenzo, but Bryan’s a big guy, a physical presence who runs really, really well,” Doughty said. “It’s great to have him back. He’s always been an exceptional special teams player. We’ve lost guys over the years — James Thrash, Khary Campbell, Rock Cartwright, Mike Sellers – but we’ve always played well on teams.”
Only Carolina and Chicago did better covering kicks than Washington in the NFC in 2012, its ninth season under special teams coach Danny Smith, who left for Pittsburgh in January. Former Denver assistant special teams coach Keith Burns gets his first shot at running his own units in Washington. Doughty, Robinson, Niles Paul, D.J. Gomes and Jordan Pugh were already under contract. But Kehl’s return should make Burns’ adjustment that much smoother.
“Special teams are never about one guy,” Doughty said. “It takes a core group of guys and we have that.”
Doughty figures to be Washington’s special teams captain in 2013, but Kehl could be the type of difference-maker that Alexander used to be.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin