When Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson met with his scouting staff before Thursday’s NFL draft, he asked each of them to name one player who should be selected with the 18th overall selection.
Alabama center Ryan Kelly, who the Colts had targeted for months, was the predominant choice around the room.
“I said give me one guy and his name was on there more than anybody, so that’s always gratifying, too,” Grigson said an hour after Kelly was chosen.
He called the decision “easy.”
The Colts were sold on landing an anchor for their O-line, especially after quarterback Andrew Luck has had to deal with “musical chairs inside there” with five centers in four years. Owner Jim Irsay as well as head coach Chuck Pagano and Grigson have spoken at length about the need to improve the offensive line and better protect Luck, a three-time Pro Bowl star who missed nine games due to injuries in a disappointing 8-8 season in 2015.
Pagano and Grigson both attended Kelly’s Pro Day in March. He was the only player they watched together in the campus workout visits. New offensive line coach Joe Philbin worked out Kelly on St. Patrick’s Day.
Pagano drew an obvious and optimistic parallel to former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and center Jeff Saturday, perennial Pro Bowl stars who set an NFL record for a quarterback-center tandem in starting 170 games together.
“I kind of equate it to the relationship that Peyton and Saturday had for 170-whatever games, whatever that was,” Pagano said. “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the same thing can happen. That chemistry, that continuity, you can’t replicate that any other way. You certainly can’t replicate it by going down the road that we’ve been down for the last four seasons, 64-65 starts for Andrew and five different guys in there and 10 starts for one of them being the most. That’s not fair to anybody. That’s not fair to the football team.”
Put simply, the Colts got this one right. I’m not just saying that because Kelly was the guy I decided they should take when combing mock drafts and perusing countless prospect evaluations five weeks ago. I kept reading everything out there, thinking that selection would inevitably change. But it never did. In both of Scout’s mock drafts, Kelly was the choice.
This pick always made the most sense. Kelly comes from a national championship program, has played against Southeastern Conference competition and was named the nation’s top center as the Rimington Trophy Award winner. He didn’t allow a single sack. As Grigson reminded, he was a leader in that Crimson Tide locker room, not just in the O-line meetings. That’s precisely what the Colts need up front. Not just a great player but a leader.
He has the size — 6-4 and 311 pounds — as well as the speed and smarts (SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year). Alabama was confident Kelly could have played any of the five line positions.
When I read how Gil Brandt, one of the most respected NFL talent evaluators in league history, said Kelly would start right away and have a solid NFL career for at least a decade, that spoke volumes.
History bodes well for taking a center in the first round, too. Just six centers had been drafted in round one in the past decade who played the position in the NFL (Cleveland’s Cameron Erving lined up as a guard last year). All six have made the Pro Bowl. NFL.com’s Mike Mayock said Kelly will continue the recent Pro Bowl tradition of centers taken in the first round.
“We got our guy,” Grigson said.
Yes, the Colts most certainly did in an encouraging beginning to this three-day process. The Colts still have to figure out who will play right guard and right tackle as well as find pass-rushing talent to give the defense a much-needed infusion of new blood.
But for starters, they addressed an incredibly important need with a guy who has all the makings of becoming a cornerstone for years to come.
Kelly shared his special day with family in Cincinnati. Yeah, he’s a Midwestern guy, too. He recalled meeting with the Colts during February’s NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I think we had a really good conversation,” he said. “It wasn’t a meet and greet. It was more of a, ‘What can I do for your team?’”
The Colts wisely came away convinced Kelly can do a lot.
“It’s all going to be a challenge,” he said, “but I’m really looking forward to being a Colt and that’s where I really want to be.”
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.