The road from junior college to the NFL isn’t taken often by quarterbacks, but Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers, two passers with strong cases as the best players in football, both took that path to become first-round picks. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly has all the skills and tools to join them as a success story in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Kelly landed at East Mississippi Community College after getting dismissed at Clemson and then jeopardized the second chance given to him by Ole Miss when he was arrested in December 2014. Now, more than a year removed from any kind of trouble, Kelly looks to have left his immaturity in the past.
NFL teams will put him through a litany of tests and interviews to decide for themselves if his off-field problems of the past are something that still concern them, but on the field, there isn’t much lacking.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound quarterback isn’t the ideal size for the NFL, but he’s big enough. As a passer who won’t tower over the offensive and defensive lines, he’ll have to be a little better at finding throwing lanes, as many of his passes were deflected in 2015.
But given the chance to step into a throw, he showed all the requisite arm talent of a professional quarterback:
Both plays show Kelly at his best. He rolls out of the pocket, resets his feet and lets it rip downfield with good anticipation of where his receiver will break open.
Once considered one of the top dual-threat recruits in the nation, Kelly is comfortable with throwing on the move, but it’s his arm strength and accuracy that will make him an early draft pick. It’s especially apparent when he sets his feet and drives the ball forward.
But there’s more to being a top NFL draft pick than just ability.
“I liked that he seemed to have a knack for the big moment,” an NFL scout told Yahoo’s Eric Edholm after watching Kelly throw for 341 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama. “He responded a few times with big throws right when [Alabama] was making some runs. That’s good. That shows me something.”
The highlight of the game, and probably the season, for Ole Miss wasn’t a play that NFL talent evaluators will love, though.
It’s a touchdown that was more the product of panic under pressure than calm. Jumping backwards to throw is only a good idea in old NFL Blitz arcade games. But leaning backwards to throw was a mistake that Kelly made more than once.
Most of the time he got away with it. But in the NFL, the pass rush gets home faster, the players hit harder and defensive backs are faster. They will almost always take advantage of a ball lofted into traffic.
Kelly did appear to get more comfortable as the season went on, though. He looked particularly good in the last month of the season after up-and-down play against Auburn, Texas A&M and Memphis.
His balance wasn’t perfect against LSU, but he stepped into throws under pressure and delivered them with poise.
Those are the type of plays that the NFL likes to see and if he can kick the habit of leaning back and/or throwing off-balance, he has all the skills necessary to be a first-round pick … something only Eli Manning and Archie Manning have accomplished as Ole Miss quarterbacks.