When the inevitable comparison question was asked, Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly didn’t hesitate with his answer.
He respects retired center Jeff Saturday, met him and picked his brain at the recent Rimington Award Trophy presentation and studied tape on the former Colts six-time Pro Bowl star while Kelly was in college at Alabama. But Kelly won’t try to be anyone other than himself.
He gave the same answer as the man he will line up in front of, quarterback Andrew Luck, whose 2012 arrival meant constant comparison questions to five-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning. Luck patiently responded each time about how much he respected Manning, but he’s not trying to be the Colts legend, just the best Luck he can be.
“I try to take a piece of a lot of people’s games,” Kelly said in his introductory press conference on Friday. “Any time you’re always going to kind of watch guys above you. So when I was in college, I was watching guys in the NFL. I’ve watched Jeff Saturday’s tape and I’m not Jeff Saturday, he’s not me. We have different skill sets, we have different game types but the one thing that we both have in common is that no matter who you’re playing at center you’re going to have to have a great leadership role. I think being named team captain at Alabama and being there and being a starter for three years kind of helped me to emerge into that role. I think that’s one thing that I’ll bring here.
“I think Jeff Saturday is one of the best centers to ever go down, but ultimately I have to do my job. So I can’t compare myself to anybody else besides who I am.”
Unlike Kelly, who was selected with the 18th overall pick, the once-unknown Saturday didn’t have the honor of hearing his name called on draft day. He was undrafted, signed with Baltimore and was cut just two months later. He was working for an electrical supplies company in Raleigh, N.C., when the Colts gave him a chance.
Saturday became a Colts fan favorite for his play and approachable off-field persona. He and Manning started 170 games together from 1999 to 2011, the most in NFL history for a quarterback-center combination. He retired after the 2012 season and now works as an NFL analyst for ESPN.
Saturday was ecstatic to see the Colts draft a center in the first round and has told Indianapolis media he hopes Kelly becomes a better player than him.
When they met in Lincoln, Neb., at January’s Rimington ceremony, where Kelly received the honor as the nation’s top center, Saturday received the Gerald R. Ford Legends Award presented annually to a former collegiate or professional center who, in addition to a standout football career, has also made significant contributions to the football and/or business communities, or through philanthropic endeavors.
“That was the first time I ever met him actually so it’s kind of coincidental that I’m sitting in the Colts facility, where I just met him,” Kelly said. “We didn’t really talk about football a lot. A lot of those events, I think it’s really important to have a well-balanced life. He gave me some words of advice on how to be a professional. I was kind of transitioning, that was right after the National Championship, so I was kind of transitioning into being a young professional.
“He doesn’t have to say a lot to take a lot from him. Just the way he acts around people, the way he cares about people, you can tell it and I think that’s one of the biggest things I took away from him.”
The Colts were quick to mention the obvious comparison after explaining why they used a first-round pick on Kelly. NFL teams typically don’t draft centers in round one. When it happens, those players typically become standout pros. Six of seven centers selected in the first round of the draft in the past decade have become Pro Bowl stars.
“Obviously getting with Ryan Kelly and his family, he’s just a tremendous young man,” said Colts owner Jim Irsay. “A tremendous pick. Really fortunate for us. We did do some investigating after the fact and we talked to a few teams. We were fortunate that Ryan Kelly was there, I think. A couple of teams right before us had called us and talked about how they nearly picked him, if their guy wasn’t there. He’s a special guy.
“Obviously there’s been a lot made of Jeff Saturday and Peyton Manning’s era with us. We can only hope to replicate that, duplicate that with Andrew and Ryan. It’s really exciting to get someone who we feel is play ready, at a position of real need. We feel great about it.”
Luck has played with five centers in four years. He’s also absorbed 375 hits in his 55-game, regular-season career. The Colts were ever mindful of how important Kelly’s selection would be to solidifying the offensive line.
Kelly was asked his thoughts on the importance of a cohesive relationship between a quarterback and center.
“I think it’s crucial,” he said. “Those guys are really working hand in hand. With the pro-style offense, especially the way it has been in the last couple of years, the importance is huge and ultimately a lot of the points that the quarterback and center are making, they involve all 11 guys together. Sometimes the quarterback can override that, sometimes the center can override that, so I think it’s about building a trust relationship off the field as well.
“I think you certainly have to have that, so obviously that is something that I want to build with Andrew, but ultimately if they ask me to play guard or tackle then I’ll play that. I’m just here to help the team the best I can and bring a great attitude every day.”
Make no mistake, though, Kelly is expected to play center and start right away. And more than that, the Colts hope they have added a franchise cornerstone.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.