Earlier today, the Pro Football Writers of America released their All-Rookie team for the 2016 season. Bears center Cody Whitehair was included on the team over the Colts’ Ryan Kelly, which led some to insinuate that it was a bad pick by the Colts.
Here’s the reality, though: Ryan Kelly was very good in 2016, and he was everything the Colts thought they were getting when they took him last year. It was an impressive rookie season, and he’ll be the long-term center for this franchise moving forward.
First, let’s start with this: Kelly played in and started all 16 games this year, making him one of only eleven rookies to start every game. He was one of just five rookie linemen to start every game and one of just two rookie centers to start all 16 games, along with Cody Whitehair.
Secondly, Kelly didn’t give up a single sack all season. That’s right, according to Pro Football Focus, Kelly didn’t allow a single sack in 626 passing snaps. That’s crazy impressive, and it helps demonstrate that Kelly was, for the most part, a good pass protector. Sure, like everyone else he had his ups and downs, and there were pressures he allowed that weren’t turned into sacks, but it’s still an impressive accomplishment nonetheless. Making things even more impressive is the fact that he also didn’t allow a single sack in his senior season at Alabama, so he’s on a streak of over two years without allowing his quarterback to get sacked. I’d say that’s pretty good.
Thirdly, Kelly helped the run blocking get better too. Football Outsiders keeps a stat called adjusted line yards that basically attempts to put into a statistic how much credit the offensive line deserves for rushing yards versus how much credit the running back deserves. So in other words, it attempts to measure how good an offensive line was at run blocking. In this metric, the Colts were third in the NFL in adjusted line yards and had the fewest percentage of runs stuffed, but just as impressive was the splits. The Colts were 24th in adjusted line yards running to the left end, 19th running to left tackle, 21st running to right tackle, and 27th running to right end - and first running up the middle (with adjusted line yards of 4.95). The Colts also rushed up the middle on a higher percentage of their runs than the NFL average. Think that has something to do with Kelly? You’d better believe it.
Here’s the deal: everyone at the time knew this wasn’t going to be the sexy pick that was the star of the show for a decade, because the expectation with Kelly was that he would come in and immediately be a solid starter and remain that way for a decade. That’s exactly what he proved to be in 2016, and though he certainly had his ups and downs like any rookie will, Kelly was a very reliable and very solid center and gave Colts fans plenty of reason for encouragement moving forward. There might be plenty of other questions about the offensive line, but center isn’t one of them.