Rick Cleveland

It’s up to Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly to debunk ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ tag

Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly dives in for a touchdown against Alabama linebacker Shaun Hamilton on Sept. 19, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Kelly was the last pick in the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. He’ll need the shake the “Mr. Irrelevant” tag if he wants to make a career in the NFL.
Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly dives in for a touchdown against Alabama linebacker Shaun Hamilton on Sept. 19, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Kelly was the last pick in the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. He’ll need the shake the “Mr. Irrelevant” tag if he wants to make a career in the NFL. AP

As the last choice of the NFL Draft, Chad Kelly will spend the next year being called “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But it says here Kelly possesses the arm strength, athleticism and toughness to become relevant, indeed, in the NFL.

Kelly, at the end of his junior season and in the Sugar Bowl that came later, was playing the position of quarterback as well as anyone in college football. Clearly, he has the physical tools to succeed in “the league.”

We’ll just have to wait and see if he can develop the discipline.

Obviously, John Elway, who knows a thing or two about pro football quarterbacks, believed it was worth the rather slight risk of using the 253rd — and last — pick of the draft to choose Kelly for the Denver Broncos. At the end of the 2015 season, Kelly was doing a pretty darned good Elway imitation, throwing accurate fastballs and taking off and running when nothing else was available.

Important to remember about Kelly: He became the first Ole Miss quarterback — ever! — to lead the Rebels to victories over Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same season and then he topped that season off by earning MVP honors in the Sugar Bowl.

Yes, he has had off-the-field problems, two knee surgeries and now a wrist surgery. But anybody who can quarterback his team to victory over Alabama’s defense, at Tuscaloosa, has the ability to play in the league and surely is worth a 7th round draft pick. To refresh memories, Kelly threw for three touchdowns, ran for one and did not commit a turnover in a 43-37 victory over Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 2015. How many quarterbacks can say they did that?

No doubt, several teams hoping Kelly would fall out of the draft all together were disappointed when the Broncos called his name. I thought the Saints might take him with their sixth round pick. Didn’t happen. The Broncos undoubtedly were happy about that.

More draft talk

Some other observations about the draft:

▪ Color me surprised that Mississippi State’s Fred Ross wasn’t chosen by anyone. Yes, Ross, who has signed a free agent contract with Carolina, dropped some balls. No, he doesn’t have the break-away speed NFL coaches covet. But he makes plays. He is Mississippi State’s all-time leading receiver, two times a consensus All-SEC pick.

What’s more, he doubles as a productive kick returner.

The Panthers got a steal.

▪ The SEC can brag about its draft numbers. Between the first pick Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett and the last pick Kelly, the SEC had 51 other players chosen, by far the most of any conference. The SEC’s 53 draftees were 11 more than the second place ACC.

Perhaps most eye-popping of all, the Big 12, which once produced pros at a pace similar to the SEC, had only 14 players drafted. Only five Big 12 players were taken in the first three rounds. By comparison, Conference USA had six players taken in the first three rounds.

The SEC had 21 players in the first two rounds alone, indeed 21 of the first 63 players chosen.

▪ Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram, as expected, was the first Mississippi player taken in the draft, going in the first round to the New York Giants. Engram will do something in New York he has often done in the off-season at Ole Miss. That is, catch passes from Eli Manning.

As he was at Ole Miss, Engram will be a matchup nightmare in the NFL where linebackers and strong safeties are often matched up in one-on-one coverage with tight ends. Not many strong safeties or linebackers can match Engram’s 4.43 speed and athleticism. Archie Manning said Sunday his youngest son is thrilled with the Giants’ pick of Engram.

Engram’s physical skills are obvious, the elder Manning said, adding, “Evan’s a great kid and a hard worker.”

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated sports columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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