Rookie center Ryan Kelly can make immediate impact for Colts' offense
On Wednesday, the Colts made Andrew Luck the highest-paid player in the NFL, but the Colts had already invested in his protection with their selection of Ryan Kelly in the first round of this year’s draft. Fresh off winning a third national championship with Alabama, Kelly enters training camp as the presumptive starter for the Colts in front of Andrew Luck, with fellow rookie Austin Blythe of Iowa and third-year undrafted free agent Jonotthan Harrison providing the competition.
Ever since they selected Luck with the first pick of the 2012 draft, the Colts have had a problem with their center leaking hits on the face of the franchise. Since the QB entered the league, Indianapolis centers have allowed a combined 121 pressures (12 sacks, 38 hits, 71 hurries) in the regular season and, A.Q. Shipley aside, they have fared little better as run-blockers. Kelly’s veteran competition, Harrison, accounts for 44 of those pressures alone in the last two seasons, fifth-most in the league in that span.
In this area alone, Kelly offers the opportunity for a significant upgrade for the Colts, having surrendered only 13 pressures (five hits, eight hurries) in his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide. In 2014, Kelly allowed only three pressures, and but for a poor national championship game by his high standards against Clemson (one hit, three hurries), he would have allowed only six this season. Kelly surrendered no pressure at all in 20 of his 27 starts during the last two years at Alabama; similar results for the Colts would be gratefully received by their newly-minted quarterback.
The passing game is only half of the challenge, and if Kelly is to provide an upgrade in the running game, as well, then he will need to ride the momentum he built towards the end of his career at Alabama. Kelly produced three of the best run-blocking games of his college career in his last few games, with big games against Auburn, and in particular, Florida and Michigan State to help propel the Crimson Tide to the national championship stage. Alabama’s running backs certainly enjoyed following the path Kelly cleared through opposing defenses. Derrick Henry gained 6.3 yards per carry on runs through the A-gaps last season, and collected eight touchdowns; Frank Gore would love to see that kind of real estate to maintain what were his most productive gaps to run through for the Colts last season.
At the collegiate level, Kelly proved to have both the skill-set and the production to be able to make an instant impact, but it’s not always that easy for centers to step in and find their best form in their debut campaigns. Few get to start as rookies, and even fewer perform at a high level—the likes of Travis Frederick, Corey Linsley, and Alex Mack are the exceptions to the rule in the last decade that Kelly will do well to match. If Kelly can bring the sort of impact that Corey Linsley unexpectedly delivered for the Packers in 2014, that would be a bonus. If he can at the very least cut down on the amount of pressure raining down on Andrew Luck from the middle of the line, then this would be a valuable upgrade for the Colts in 2016, with the potential for Kelly to develop into an anchor for this offensive line over the course of Luck’s new contract.