There’s a solid argument to be made that the best NFL situation for Chad Kelly—who’s working his way back from ACL and wrist injuries and will have to adapt to a pro system after two years in Hugh Freeze’s college spread—would have given him two or three years to learn behind a veteran near the end of his career (hey there, Tom Brady). Instead, Kelly was taken with the draft’s final pick by Denver, parachuting him in behind two promising young quarterbacks already locked in a tight battle for the starting gig.
As things stand right now, the race for the top spot on the Broncos’ depth chart is a dead heat between Paxton Lynch, Denver’s top pick of the 2016 draft, and Trevor Siemian, who logged 14 starts last season. New head coach Vance Joseph said during the NFL Combine in March that his team is “all set” behind center, and the fact that GM John Elway didn’t pursue Tony Romo last month suggests that the franchise is indeed content with the top two options on its roster.
But hell, if you’re looking for a reason to think a seventh-round pick who’s never thrown an NFL pass can compete for a starting job in Denver, there’s already one on the team. Siemian, one of the Bronco’s three seventh-round picks in 2015, was an afterthought when the franchise made Lynch the presumed successor to Peyton Manning by taking him with the 26th overall pick of last year’s draft. Lynch, who became a national name by out-dueling Kelly during Memphis’ upset over Ole Miss two years ago, was expected to compete with Mark Sanchez for the starting job. But Siemian came out of of nowhere to win the job in camp and held on to it all season (Lynch made two starts while Siemian was out with a shoulder injury).
The results were solid if uninspiring—Siemian threw for 3,401 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 picks but was unable to elevate an offense that sputtered routinely. But Lynch, who found it difficult to grasp a complicated NFL system after a college career spent running a simpler spread at Memphis, was unable to take his place. The rookie’s struggles to learn the playbook and progress through reads led one of his wide receivers to describe him as a “deer in the headlights.”
Of course, Kelly, who’s been knocked for his on-field decision-making at Ole Miss, will face that same learning curve coming out of Freeze’s offense. The more immediate barrier to his chances of climbing the depth chart, though, is his health. The wrist surgery that kept him from rescheduling his injury-shortened pro day will keep him from throwing for at least two more months, meaning he’ll be sidelined during Denver’s rookie minicamp and spring OTAs. The wrist should be healed in time for training camp in late July, but at that point he’ll still be just eight months removed from tearing his ACL and lateral meniscus (though it should be noted that when Kelly tore the same ACL as a freshman at Clemson, he was miraculously back on the field within five months). With Denver focusing on the Siemian-Lynch competition and in no hurry to rush their seventh-round rookie back from a serious knee injury, that will mean limited snaps for Kelly during camp.
Once healthy, though, there’s no doubt that Kelly has the raw physical tools to compete in the NFL. He has an absolute cannon for an arm, is the most accurate passer ever analyzed by ESPN’s Sports Science and has the athleticism to extend plays. Realistically, it’ll probably be a couple years, if ever, before he’s ready to make a run at the starting job. Still, if a guy from Northwestern who was once nicknamed “Checkdown Trevor” by his own defense can become the starter in Denver without ever having thrown an NFL pass, what’s to say Kelly can’t worm his way into the competition sooner rather than later?