INDIANAPOLIS — It's not often that interior offensive linemen are taken early in the NFL Draft, but when the Colts did it with center Ryan Kelly in 2016, they got themselves a gem.
The Colts selected Kelly with the 18th-overall pick that year and have yet to look back.
According to Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire, Kelly has established himself as one of the very best centers in the National Football League; he's ranked as the NFL's third-best center on Farrar's list:
"Kelly has missed 13 games in the last two seasons because of injuries, and that may be the only reason he isn't higher on the list. In any case, the 18th overall pick in the 2016 draft out of Alabama has been a highly touted player since his rookie season, and for good reason. In 885 snaps in the 2018 season, Kelly allowed one sack, three quarterback hits and eight quarterback hurries, and he put up strong performances when asked to turn on the power in the running game."
"Kelly has the footwork and backpedal you'd expect from a tackle, and he flares out with a wide base when he's dealing with interior pass rushers. He's also more than capable of peeling off and helping his guards against the pass rush — not that Quenton Nelson and Mark Glowinski need a lot of help. Dominant at the line of scrimmage and when he kicks up to linebacker depth, Kelly has the potential to be the best center in the league. The Colts pushed the button on his fifth-year option, and if he stays healthy, Kelly will be an integral cog in Indy's high-powered offense."
Although Kelly has faced some injury issues early on in his three-year career, he has made a big impact while on the field which indicates that the future is bright.
"Ryan Kelly is probably the most underrated offensive lineman in the NFL," Colts quarterback Andrew Luck told reporters last season.
According to Pro Football Focus — which considers Kelly one of the top 25 offensive linemen in the NFL — Kelly has only surrendered one sack in his career (2018), and he also allowed just three quarterback hits and eight quarterback hurries last year.
He received PFF's eighth-highest grade among centers (69.9) in 2018. Among centers who played at least 50 percent of their team's offensive snaps, he was one of just nine to allow one or fewer sacks, one of 11 to allow two or fewer hits, and allowed the third-fewest hurries.
In the 14 games in which Kelly was active last season (including playoffs), the Colts averaged 102.9 rushing yards per game versus 91.8 without him. If you take those numbers starting in Week 6 when the Colts' run game began to get established, that number jumps to 118.7 rushing yards per game with Kelly, including three games where they had at least 200 yards on the ground.
The Colts also had their best pass protection performances with Kelly in the lineup. The six games in which they allowed no sacks all occurred with No. 78 at center. On the season, Indy averaged 1.0 sack allowed per game when Kelly was in and 1.8 when he was out.
We all can see the impact a center has on the field physically, but what we don't see is the mental and verbal responsibilities they have to identify certain things in the defense and communicate them to their teammates.
"Yeah, Ryan was excellent," Colts head coach Frank Reich said about Kelly last season when asked about his ability to make calls on the line. "I think he's been pretty good all year and really his leadership in that area and really in every area as far as the offensive line play has been good. But I think it keeps getting better every week."
With Kelly in the middle, the Colts' offensive line has been as good as we've seen it in a decade. Luck went without being sacked from the first drive of Week 5 all the way until the third quarter of Week 12 — a total of 239 dropbacks, which is the third-longest such streak in NFL history.
The offensive line's performance with Kelly anchoring it in 2018 earned him his first career designation as a Pro Bowl alternate.