Head-to-head: Kelly vs. Thomas

With the NFL Draft right around the corner, Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly and Michigan State's Devin Thomas are considered to be the top two WRs in the draft.

Who's the best WR in the draft:
Malcolm Kelly or Devin Thomas?


Kelly takes it to the house against Miami early in the 2007 season.
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

When he lines up on the outside, defenses fear his presence, and they know something big is about to happen. The defender has the daunting task of trying to stop this physical specimen from breaking free in the open field and notching a quick-six on the scoreboard. Good luck…

Oklahoma’s Malcolm Kelly has struck fear into the hearts of many defenders during his three-year stint with the Sooners and was a dangerous offensive weapon since his arrival in Norman.

As a true freshman, Kelly displayed his talents and was a key contributor on a team that was a run oriented offense, with Adrian Peterson receiving the bulk of the touches. During that season, Kelly had 33 receptions for 471 yards and two touchdowns.

The following season, Kelly emerged as one of the elite wide receivers in the country and showed the promise everyone anticipated when he was recruited by LSU, Nebraska, Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. He led the Sooners in receptions (62), receiving yards (993) and touchdown catches (10). Kelly played in every game during his sophomore season, but suffered a knee injury early on in the Fiesta Bowl, which caused him to miss most of the game. The injury he suffered against Boise State required surgery to repair the cartilage damage.

He was slowed during spring drills following the surgery, but when the season started, he was ready to go. Kelly got his junior campaign off to a sensational start hauling in 14 catches for 301 yards (21.5 YPC) and seven touchdowns in the Sooners’ first three games. But after that three-game stretch, Kelly’s production faltered dramatically. Although, he still finished the season with 49 receptions for 821 yards and nine touchdowns. Just like the previous season, Kelly endured another leg injury, this time a thigh contusion, in the Fiesta Bowl. Kelly played one series in the first quarter and was forced to leave the game.

Despite leaving another big game early without having a major impact while the entire country watched, Kelly decided to leave Oklahoma early, after only receiving a second round grade from the NFL advisory committee.

“We're excited for Malcolm and his family," Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops said. "He was an outstanding player in our program, and we appreciate all of his efforts. We look forward to watching him in the NFL. He is well-suited to professional football in many ways, and we are sure that the attributes that made him such a success for us will serve him equally well on that level."

Those attributes have yet to be seen as Kelly is still nursing the thigh bruise he suffered in the Fiesta Bowl. Kelly showed up at the Scouting Combine in good spirits, but was unable to work out in front of scouts. He measured in at 6-foot-4, 224 pounds, which only made him more intriguing to NFL personnel, but not being able to show his ability on the field was a disappointment.

Kelly said at the Combine that he didn't anticipate on working out at Oklahoma’s Pro Day, which was held on March 11th, due to his thigh injury. It was announced at OU’s Pro Day that Kelly would hold a private workout on April 9th, which didn’t please many NFL personnel in attendance.

Kelly’s inability to work out this off-season hasn’t done much for his draft status. Teams are starting to wonder about his health, and anytime someone questions your physical prowess, it’s never a good thing, especially when you play a skill position. The biggest obstacle Kelly faces is to prove his critics wrong and run a sparkling 40. He’s a long-strider with good speed, but after Devin Thomas’ surprising 4.4-time in the 40, the stakes have been raised for Kelly.

One positive note for Kelly thus far is that he’s scheduled to meet with the Minnesota Vikings on April 10th at their practice facility.

 

   


Thomas carries the ball against Michigan this past season.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When you have a big-time wide receiver in an offense, it makes everything else better. A player who commands attention on the outside opens up the entire field for the other playmakers to make an impact.

Michigan State’s Devin Thomas has the unique ability to make other players around him better and be a dominant force on the outside. Not only does Thomas star as a receiver, but he's also capable of rushing the ball and being a big-play return specialist on special teams.

"When he has an opportunity to come in and make plays, he makes plays," Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio said. "Whether it's kickoff returns, catching the deep ball, running reverses, or whatever; when he's hot, he plays football at a different level."

Thomas may play football at a different level, but it wasn't always at the top level. Prior to suiting up for the Spartans, Thomas was a JUCO standout at Coffeyville Community College. He spent two years at Coffeyville; redshirted his first-year and played in his second-year. As a redshirt freshman, Thomas led Coffeyville to a 9–3 record and immediately showed his skills by catching 33 passes for 674 yards and five touchdowns.

In 2006, Thomas transferred to Michigan State and was a relative unknown. He saw limited playing time during his first season with the Spartans and only managed six receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown. But most of his statistics were accumulated in a game against Indiana, where he displayed his talents by recording four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. After that game, his promise was evident, and it blossomed into superstardom.

This past season, Thomas, who’s nickname Showtime matches his game, emerged as one of college football’s most dominant receivers, as he collected 75 receptions for 1,226 yards and eight touchdowns, which in turn led him to the decision to leave Michigan State after only starting one-year.

"He has exceeded my expectations in the way he has approached things," Dantonio said. “He has just blossomed into a playmaker. He's been the total football player for us in every respect."

Thomas continued to exceed expectations this off-season at the Scouting Combine. He measured in at a solid 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and displayed great measureables and skills during his workout. Thomas ran a surprising 4.40 in the 40-yard dash, which silenced scouts who had doubts about his game, and also performed well in shuttle drills. Thomas showed his athleticism in the broad jump with a 10’6” effort, but didn’t do as well in the vertical jump with a 28-inch attempt. He redeemed himself in positional drills, as he flashed great hands and ran precise routes.

At Michigan State’s Pro Day, Thomas elected to stand on most of his numbers from the Combine, but since he didn’t take part in the bench press, he decided to show his strength in front of scouts and tried to improve his vertical jump. He showed scouts in attendance that he has solid strength by putting up 225 pounds 16 times and bettered his vertical jump by eclipsing his mark from the Combine by five inches with a 33-inch performance.

Thomas is a big receiver that teams will covet in the first round. The battle between him and Oklahoma’s Malcolm Kelly will certainly heat up after Kelly’s Pro Day on April 9th, which will be the first time he’s worked out in front of scouts all off-season due to an injured knee. Thomas has already met with the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings, two teams that could use a big receiver in their offense, and may have the upper-hand over Kelly at this point.

If Thomas continues his impressive play during private workouts with teams over the next four weeks and interviews well, he will be the first receiver taken in the draft.

SCOUTING REPORT

Strengths: Kelly has great size, good speed and is a big-play threat. He has a good feel for the position, recognizes coverages and is able to get separation from the defender. He’s a physical route runner who doesn’t mind contact and will challenge defenders over the middle, as well as get vertical and make highlight reel receptions. He catches the ball effortlessly running at full speed and shows good timing. He catches the ball with his hands and rarely allows the ball to get into his body. He’s a strong receiver who breaks tackles in the open field and has great YAC ability.

Weaknesses: He doesn't have elite straight-line speed. He tends to lose focus on intermediate routes and drop catchable passes.

NFL Comparison: Braylon Edwards, Cleveland Browns

Strengths: Thomas is a quick receiver who consistently makes plays on offense. He uses his size to his advantage, runs physical routes, and makes tough catches in traffic. He gets a quick release off the line, is quick in and out of cuts, and flashes vertical speed to make big plays. He's a sure-handed receiver who adjusts well to errant throws, leaps to make acrobatic receptions, and finds soft spots within a defense. He plays with great awareness and instincts and is a capable blocker downfield.

Weaknesses: He has to run more precise routes. He tends to lack focus on intermediate routes and will occasionally drop easy passes. He started just one-year at Michigan State.

NFL Comparison: Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs


CONCLUSION

Kelly has the size and skill to become one of the elite wide receivers at the next level. If he's able to stay healthy and ends up in a favorable situation, look for him to be a perennial Pro Bowler. Thomas is an intriguing athletic wide receiver with a lot of upside. The scary part is that he's still learning the game and performed extremely well during his lone season as a starting WR. He's not a polished receiver yet, but he's close, and his ability to get vertical and catch the ball consistently excites scouts. In three years, I expect Kelly to be a physical presence on the outside who will emerge as a team's No. 1 WR, while Thomas will develop into one of the game's elite game breakers and be voted to at least one Pro Bowl.


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