It took 253 picks, but Chad Kelly finally heard his name called in the NFL Draft. The Denver Broncos made the Ole Miss star a not-so-irrelevant Mr. Irrelevant by snagging him with the draft’s final pick.
We knew injuries and off-field mistakes would keep Kelly from going as high as his arm talent and athleticism deserved, but dropping this low is a surprise considering that he could end up being one of the highest value picks of the draft. Given the long history of first-round busts at his position and Kelly’s relatively low-risk draft position, a guy who’s been labeled as risky by pundits may end up being less of a gamble than public perception would suggest.
Scouts are better at evaluation than just about anyone, but they seemingly tend to get attached to a limited pool of traits, which can result in forgetting a player’s past accomplishments and production. Obsessing over textbook physical attributes in QB prospects has led them astray in the past, and NFL.com’s current player comparison to Kelly, Andy Dalton, is a perfect example of that.
As they did with Dalton’s prolific career at TCU, critics may be tossing aside how Kelly elevated the Rebels’ offense in a short amount of time, racking up wins against a rugged SEC West schedule. On top of that, he’s toward the top of the list of QB prospects in terms of arm talent, and not too far off from a prototypical quarterback size at 6’2, 224 pounds.
Among the top 20 NFL draft prospects at his position, Kelly sits in the 80th percentile in both yards per completion and yards per carry. He rewrote the Ole Miss record books in just two seasons and his 2015 campaign ranks as the third most prolific (in terms of total offense) in SEC history. His cannon of a right arm and deft accuracy downfield made him one of the best deep throwers in college football. He’s also in the bottom half in terms of interception avoidance, though.
Kelly’s journey to the NFL is a long one, starting out as one of the top dual threat high school QBs in the nation and a Clemson signee. Dabo Swinney ended up kicking him off the team for detrimental conduct, and after Hugh Freeze plucked him out of East Mississippi Community College, he got arrested at a bar in Buffalo. It was that tussle that the NFL eventually used as ground to un-invite him from the combine in March.
The off-field behavior can’t quite be ignored, but still, it’s annoying that we’re still talking about it. What merits perhaps more empirical doubt after the evaluation process is the inconsistency in progressions, sporadic picks, and willingness to take more hits than he likely can afford.
It’s tempting to compare Chad to his Mississippi counterpart Dak Prescott, the latest example of an under-the-radar college product who delivered immediate brilliance at the professional level. However, it isn’t that simple, and not just because of Kelly’s torn ACL and more recent wrist injury. Kelly may be forced to transition from a system of relatively simple reads to one that demands rapid decision making in response to more complex coverages.
Even given all the reasons for pause, fans can, at least for now, remain hopeful for Kelly’s potential upside to win out in the long term.