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Baggage and all, Chad Kelly was undervalued this NFL Draft

The Ole Miss quarterback’s talent and production suggest he should have gone much earlier than he did.

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Alabama v Mississippi Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Given that 252 players found a new NFL home before Chad Kelly was selected by the Denver Broncos last weekend, it was a relief at the time to hear his name get called at all. It didn’t take long, however, for fans to look back at the draft order and question the decision process used by teams to not take a chance on him earlier. Kelly’s talent combined with his low draft position made him arguably one of the highest value picks this year.

In the eyes of many, he simply wasn’t worth the baggage to invest in long-term, and perhaps the conversation could end there. But at some point, actual football-related reasons should come into play when picking a QB, and it didn’t totally feel like that was the case. Pro Football Focus put together a comprehensive ranked list of draft-worthy quarterbacks. The graph below gives an idea of how closely in line the actual draft results fell with those rankings.

It’s not all that outrageous that three lower ranked players were taken before Kelly, as Nathan Peterman and Brad Kaaya were similarly overlooked. But the degree to which teams convinced themselves that Kelly was a gamble compared to other options was a bit absurd. Typically, quarterbacks picked as late as he was don’t show up on a lot of pre-draft rankings, and they certainly don’t offer up the same high volume production as Kelly did in college.

To get a sense of whether Kelly’s draft position lined up with his college production, I collected stats from all former quarterbacks from Power Five schools who were drafted in the final two rounds of the NFL Draft in the last five years. Averaging stats from each player’s two seasons prior to their selection, here’s how they compared with Kelly’s numbers over a similar time span. Also included is the average Offensive S&P+ rank for those teams, along with Ole Miss’s over the past two years.

Stat 6th & 7th Round QBs, 2013-17 Chad Kelly
Stat 6th & 7th Round QBs, 2013-17 Chad Kelly
Completion % 62% 64%
Yds per game 233.69 309.09
Yds per throw 7.55 8.65
TD per game 1.54 2.27
Int rate 2.64% 2.67%
Passer rating 136 152.32
Offense Rank 51 11

To the surprise of few to none, Kelly led in every statistical category but interception rate, even demonstrating higher per-throw efficiency despite throwing over 100 times more than the rest of the group. Perhaps most remarkable is that with just spring and fall practice of preparation, he elevated an offense that had ranked 43rd in S&P+ and was dysfunctional by season’s end to a top-10 unit in 2015 and the second-best offense in Passing S&P+.

In a vacuum, the concerns surrounding Kelly’s prospects as an NFL quarterback were fair, but given the already uninspiring class of passers this draft cycle, it’s surprising no one jumped on him earlier.

The way he was characterized as turnover-prone far more than any of the other prospects didn’t capture a complete picture, especially given his workload in comparison to the rest of the group. Josh Dobbs, for example, had a higher interception rate and the second most fumbles (10) in the nation last season, yet that shaky side of his game was hardly mentioned leading up to the draft by pundits.

While Kelly’s personal past certainly matters when considering making an investment in him, enough evidence exists to conclude that teams care about players’ character when it’s convenient. Seemingly nothing had changed in between the NFL inviting and uninviting him to the combine, so it became even more difficult than usual to take the league’s contrived moral high ground seriously.

What resulted after teams scanned the uncertainties involved in selecting Kelly was a shifted preference for quarterbacks that were perceived as safer picks. That makes sense, but even the process of assessing risk in players seemed off. Most indicative of that flawed exercise in thought was when the 49ers selected C.J. Beathard in the 3rd round, who despite probably being a nice guy, ranked three spots behind Kelly on PFF’s QB rankings and was the football equivalent of unflavored oatmeal in college, stats-wise.

Valuing abstract traits like character over a substantive body of work brings on its own set of risks, and we saw that limited scope in action when looking at the final quarterback draft order. Kelly’s streaks of brilliance at Ole Miss didn’t mean that scouts’ reservations weren’t valid, and his past production should by no means be blindly interpreted as a guarantee of success at the next level. Given the history of busts at his position, the odds are stacked pretty high against him.