Drafted with the 18th overall pick back in 2016 to help protect a former franchise quarterback, Ryan Kelly became the instant starter at one of the most important positions in the offensive line. Considered a sure bet out of Alabama, Kelly impressed out of the gate, and was also a key player in the Colts’ 2018 dominant offensive line that allowed the least amount of sacks in the NFL, but because of several factors going wrong at the same time, new head coach Shane Steichen has a tough decision to make on whether he will retain Kelly or go a different way.
Disclaimer: While I believe PFF’s pass blocking effectiveness ranking is a great way of measuring offensive linemen, run blocking leaves a bit to be desired, as it is much more subjective and tough to analyze the impact of offensive linemen in the running game.
It is evident that Kelly’s performance has dropped off considerably since the 2020 season, which coincides with a lot of factors. The constant quarterback changes, knee and neck injuries, changing offensive line coaches, having to suffer through Danny Pinter at right guard... there are plenty of excuses to be made for Kelly, but the simple truth is that he simply has not been performing well, and the fact that Pinter was more than serviceable when plugged in at center leaves him even more in evidence as a tough player to keep right now for a new regime.
The big issue with Kelly is that he is the 6th highest paid center in the league, his contract runs for two more seasons, and the Colts already have a massive amount of money commited to the offensive line. Basically you have an aging player, whose play has been regressing, and making a lot of money. Not a great thing to have in any team and much less on one that is entering a rebuild.
Now the Colts have two choices they can make regarding Kelly: They can bet that he will manage to turn things around and return to form, leaving those nasty ‘21 and ‘22 seasons behind him and becoming the best friend of whatever rookie quarterback the Colts take, or they could release him, with not much dead cap, and giving Pinter, while probably also getting a backup plan, the chance to start and become the center of the future. General manager Chris Ballard most likely learnt from last season’s mistakes about not hedging against his bets in the offensive line, and if he takes the risk to cut Kelly loose and give the starting spot to Pinter, I fully expect him to either draft a backup or get a veteran center to cover Pinter.
Steichen’s Philadelphia offense not only enjoyed having the best offensive line in the NFL, but also the best center, so he will surely be emphasizing the center position big time as he gets his first head coaching opportunity in the NFL. Whatever happens with the center position is going to be one of the most important things to watch during what is going to be remembered as a pivotal offseason for the Indianapolis Colts.