The Colts have really focused this offseason on addressing their offensive line, and Kelly is the biggest and most notable piece added to the mix. After having searched for the long-term replacement for Jeff Saturday for years, the Colts finally invested big into the center position in taking Kelly, and it should pay off for Andrew Luck and the running game.
Kelly is the player everyone is focused on this offseason for the Colts, so we reached out to Roll Bama Roll, SB Nation's site covering Alabama, to learn more about him. Erik Evans was kind enough to answer some questions for us about the Colts' new center:
1. How did Ryan Kelly do on-the-field at Alabama during his tenure there?
Do not listen to anyone who tells you differently: Ryan Kelly was the heart and soul of the Alabama offense for the past two seasons. Alabama broke in a raw 5th year senior and a converted RB in successive years at QB, and had a revolving door on the right side of the line. Yet, the Tide won back to back SEC titles and a national title in large part because of his play and his leadership. How crucial was Kelly to the offense? Take two examples of games in which Kelly was injured, and Alabama's offense completely stalled, leading to losses or suddenly-narrow wins. October 4, 2014: Alabama leads Ole Miss 14-3 in the second; Kelly goes out; Alabama's offense would completely derail, scoring just a FG over the remaining half in a 23-17 loss. October 15, 2015, the Tide is up 28-13 at the break vs. Texas A&M. Kelly would suffer a slight concussion, and sit the second half. Alabama mustered two FGs and a pick-six the rest of the game. He is that good of player and has that kind of impact on an offense.
2. Are there any off-the-field concerns (that you know about) that fans should be aware of?
Ryan Kelly was a model student and citizen in Tuscaloosa, earning the 2015 SEC scholar-athlete of the year award. Aside from a few minor injury updates and soundbites in his senior year as he was taking on the leadership mantle, you literally heard nothing about or from Kelly, nor have there been rumors either (Tuscaloosa is a small city with few secrets.) Kelly works hard, he works smart, and he keeps his powder dry, so to speak. You will not have to worry about drugs, crime, being a headcase, a locker room cancer, or any other off-the-field distractions that would hinder his play or be detrimental to the team chemistry.
3. What are some of Kelly's biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Strengths: Kelly is exceptional at turning defensive linemen to the side to clear a hole for a running back. His footwork, hand technique, and feel for creating lanes make him a great fit for a zone blocking scheme. Though not perfect, he's an accomplished pass protector that usually keeps the pocket clean for the quarterback.
Weaknesses: His lean frame does come with some drawbacks. In power situations, he struggles with keeping his center of gravity low enough to generate a strong push forwards. He also has a tendency to lock on to certain players when he releases into the second level, and he will occasionally miss a linebacker while focused on a less important target.
4. How do you think he will do transitioning to the NFL level?
Kelly's transition should be a relatively painless one: He started in a pro-style offense for three years, so it's not as though he has to learn how to block, unlike some well-publicized and complained-of Big 12 products. He will need to work on technique somewhat, but is exceptionally tough handle at the line of scrimmage and has had the benefit of playing against elite, day-one NFL starters for years. His 2015 stats speak for themselves: Zero sacks allowed, three total penalties, and only eight missed assignments in nearly 700 snaps. Finally, he is an exceptionally smart player: he will learn the playbook quickly and his assignments seamlessly. There is about to be some serious nerd rapport between he and Andrew Luck.
5. Do you think this was a good pick by the Colts (in terms of player and draft position)?
This was a fantastic pick by the Colts. If you asked most knowledgeable college football fans which of Alabama's seven drafted players was an absolute, can't miss, decade-long quality NFL starter, you'd hear Ryan Kelly's name nine out of ten times. It also was a no-brainer in terms of need for Indy: In a quarterback-driven league, with an offensive line as bad as the Colts have been, you do not pass up the guy with a demonstrable history of making everyone around him better, who plays disciplined smart football, and who will make the right reads and the right assignments to protect the face of the franchise. Kelly will thrive in Indianapolis and he will quietly be excellent for many years to come.
Thanks again to Erik Evans of Roll Bama Roll for taking the time to answer these questions!