When Ryan Kelly signed his 4 year, $50M contract extension in 2020, he was expected to perform as one of the best centers in the NFL. Unfortunately in 2021, personal tragedy struck for Kelly when he lost his newborn daughter due to a heart failure. The incident had a negative affect on his game and many were questioning if he would ever be the same again. However, in 2023, he has put those questions to be as he has re-established himself as one of the best centers in football.
Before Personal Tragedy
Before the 2021 season, Ryan Kelly was one of the best centers in the league. He was coming off a 2nd team All Pro selection as well as back to back Pro bowl nominations. He had allowed only 4 sacks in his first 5 seasons, was an above average run blocker who was great on duo style blocks (double teams) and getting to the second level. He could fight you in a phone booth or do some damage out in space. The contract he received was well warranted.
The Colts did have a very good offensive line early in his career, but despite the amazing play of Quenton Nelson, it was Kelly that was the glue of the offensive line. When he was injured in 2017, the play of the offensive line suffered. By most measures and according to websites like Football Outsiders and PFF, the unit was one of the 8 worst in the NFL. After a fully healthy 2018 and a new offensive line scheme, they jumped to being a top 5 group by those same measures. They maintained that great play in 2019 and in 2020 (also finishing in the top 5 and top 8, respectively). In each season that Kelly was healthy, the group finished amongst the best and that’s thanks in large part to Kelly’s presence and strong play. Quenton Nelson is the star of the group, but Kelly is the leader and the one that kept things together and rolling smoothly.
Play in 2021 and 2022
After the tragedy, Kelly’s play severely declined. He allowed 8 sacks, 6 hits and 40 pressures over the course of the two seasons. He had nearly as many pressures in two seasons than he did in the previous five seasons. The play of the offense was very poor, with the offensive line being the biggest culprit on many weeks. While Jonathan Taylor and the running game thrived in 2021, the DVOA adjusted yards data (which projects how much an offensive line is contributing to the running game) shows that the Colts unit ranked as one of the best units in the league, yet Ryan Kelly’s run blocking numbers were poor so the unit did well despite Kelly. The eye test would also confirm this as he whiffed on many second blocks and was often on the ground, two things we were see/saw from Kelly.
Both seasons were awful, to the point where cutting or moving on from Kelly were serious debates.
Play in 2023
Not only has Kelly not allowed a sack through 9 games, but he also hasn’t allowed a hit. He’s only allowed 3 pressures, which on 282 pass blocking snaps, means that he allows a pressure once every 94 pass blocking snaps, which is approximately 3 games. That is the lowest pressure rate of all offensive linemen in the NFL. The Colts run game ranks amongst the top 10 in the NFL, and that’s with a few moving pieces. Kelly’s strong play has been a key reason why the offense ranks in the top 12 in most statistical categories, despite the inconsistent quarterback play.
If the Colts are going to get close to the playoffs, the offense will need to be consistent and perform like a top 10 unit, which it has for many games this season. The running game will be crucial and Ryan Kelly, who ranks as one of the best run blocking interior linemen in the NFL this season, will need to continue his strong play. According to PFF, Kelly is slightly better on zone blocking plays, but is also capable in gap blocking situations. I personally believe the Colts are better running the ball when they are in zone blocking schemes as it suits the offensive linemen better but it also puts more emphasis on the vision of the running backs, a trait that Taylor and Moss have at a high level.
Contract and Future
Kelly is in the 3rd year of his current contract and is on the books next year for 14.6M. He is set to be a free agent in 2025 when he will be 32 years old. 32 years old isn’t necessarily ancient in terms of age for a center, so if the strong play continues next season, I could definitely see the Colts giving him a 2 or 3 year contract that would take him to 34 or 35 years old.
The offensive line will always be an important unit, but the center position is arguably its most important. Centers are involved on almost every run play, help quarterbacks with their protection and the 2nd leaders of the offense. Having a good center is not easy to come by, which is why teams do what they can to keep good ones around for a long time (Kelce, Ragnow, Andrews being prime examples).