Kelly Coming Along Nicely

Before the drafting of Bryant McKinnie, head coach Mike Tice was raving about Lewis Kelly's potential. A look at his performances in NFL Europe to date shows that Tice's analysis looks right on.

When the Vikings drafted Lewis Kelly in the seventh round of the 2000 draft, he was a virtual unknown by the usual draftnik populace. However, the Vikings saw potential in the small-college offensive lineman from South Carolina State where most others did not. A former tight end who didn't start playing football until his senior year in high school, Kelly offered the prospects of being a late bloomer.

Following his selection by the Vikings back then, a videotape review of some college games showed a player with some athletic ability but a tall, angular, frame sorely lacking in bulk. Quite frankly, Lewis seemed too far away from making the jump to the pros.

But after showing some promise early in training camp, a knee injury enabled the team to stash him on injured reserve for his entire rookie season. That gave Kelly the opportunity to hit the weights. He spent the offseason training extensively with the Vikings' strength staff and got considerably stronger.

After seeing extended playing time during the preseason last year, Kelly made the team as a backup. But despite the injuries that beset the offensive line last season, he saw action in just three games. Still, head coach Mike Tice liked his potential. So he was allocated to play in the NFL Europe this summer.

An impressive training camp before heading overseas had Tice talking Kelly up prior to the draft this year. But with the drafting of Bryant McKinnie in the first round, his chance of playing at left tackle is slim. However, there are other opportunities on the offensive line — namely at left guard and/or right tackle.

Tice is not just blowing smoke when he talks about being impressed by Kelly and how he's played overseas. As the starting left tackle for the Frankfurt Galaxy, Kelly has been an anchor on what appears to be the best team in the league.

Through three games, he hasn't missed a snap and has generally played very solid, proficient football. Kelly (6-foot-4, 306 pounds) has filled out his frame nicely and appears even bigger and stronger than he did last season. He still moves his feet well and has show dramatic improvement in his technique. He mirrors and slides well in pass protection, shows good balance, anchors nicely against the bull rush, bends his knees and sinks his hips nicely.

For the most part, he's been virtually flawless as a pass protector on the blind side in one-on-one blocking situations. As a run blocker, he comes off the ball well, gets some movement and generally sustains his blocks nicely. He does a really nice job of gaining the advantage in terms of positioning and seals off well on plays run to either side of him. He still isn't a nasty, physical, destroyer-type and his focus and intensity does seem to wane at times, but he's been very efficient and very consistent.

In last weekend's game against Scotland, Kelly graded out at 92 percent efficiency in 63 offensive plays from scrimmage. He struggled on pass protection just twice in 31 plays, and both of those were him being late to slide back outside to pick up a stunt. One-on-one, he was perfect, with his man being a complete non-factor on the pass rush. Overall he did not allow a sack. In the running game, he was also near perfect. His man was seldom a factor and I credited him with three knockdowns. He also showed some toughness in playing despite being dinged late in the game with a leg injury.

With McKinnie in the fold and penciled in as the starter at left tackle for the next decade or so, Kelly will probably have to work at either left guard or right tackle to get on the field with the big club. But, provided he continues to improve, gains experience and avoids injury, he will push hard for a spot at one of those two spots this fall.

At right tackle, where it appears he can easily handle the pass protection responsibilities, it would enable the team to move Chris Liwienski back inside to left guard, the position at which they think he will be even better. That would improve the offensive line at two positions.

If they're more comfortable with Liwienski staying at tackle, then left guard is probably Kelly's best spot, where he would compete with veterans Corbin Lacina and Everett Lindsay for playing time.

Either way, the confidence and experience that Lewis Kelly is gaining figures to be invaluable.

This week's Frankfurt game is on Sunday at 11 a.m. Central. It's available only on Direct-TV. Kelly is expected to play despite the fact that he has been working through a hip flexor injury.

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