INDIANAPOLIS — Back in 2016, Ryan Kelly let his agent in on a secret.
Coming out of Alabama, Kelly knew he was likely going to be taken somewhere in the middle of the first round of that year's NFL Draft. But as he studied the teams who would be picking in that range, he kept circling back to the Indianapolis Colts.
"I was like, 'I don't want to go play in Seattle. It's too far away,'" Kelly, a West Chester, Ohio, native recalled telling his agent at the time. "'Indianapolis is two hours from my house. This would be awesome to have my parents come see all my games, and my grandpa — all my grandparents, aunts and uncles.'"
Sure enough, with the 18th-overall pick in that year's draft, Kelly's dream scenario ended up playing out: he was headed to Indy to be the Colts' new starting center.
On Thursday, more than four years after he made that 17-minute ride to the Colts' facility on team owner Jim Irsay's private jet the day after the draft, Kelly learned his stay in his new home was going to be extended for a few years.
Kelly, 27, signed a reported four-year contract extension that, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, makes the Pro Bowler the highest-paid center in the NFL.
Kelly was ecstatic to have the opportunity to get the deal done — and to also have the weight lifted off his shoulders before the start of the regular season.
"This has been my home; I bought a house here after my rookie year, and really just love the city," Kelly told reporters on Thursday night, shortly after signing his deal. "I stay here year-round because I love it so much, and so there's nowhere else I'd rather be."
Kelly was thrown right into the fire as a rookie in 2016, starting all 16 games, but would run into some adversity the following season. In 2017, Kelly broke his foot during a joint training camp practice with the Detroit Lions, costing him the first four games of the regular season. Then, in Week 12 of that year, he suffered a concussion against the Tennessee Titans, and wasn't able to shake the symptoms the rest of the season.
In all, Kelly played in just seven games his second year.
But he said a heart-to-heart meeting with Chris Ballard, who had just wrapped up his first season as the Colts' general manager, eased his mind heading into 2018.
"I was really down on myself; just, I didn't play well when I was in, I was hurt, and Chris Ballard was like, 'Look: let's start over in 2018. Let's just start over fresh, and I promise you we'll make this team better,'" Kelly recalled. "And he did. You know, he made the locker room better, he made the offensive line room better, and he stuck with me."
The Colts, indeed, improved in a hurry, and Kelly was starting to establish himself as one of the better players at his position in the NFL. In 2018, he anchored a Colts offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks, 18, in the NFL, and all five starters returned from that unit in 2019.
That continuity allowed Kelly to blossom last year. The Colts, once again, had one of the top offensive lines in the NFL — Indy ranked seventh overall in rushing last year, while the team's sack percentage ranked tied for eighth in the NFL — and Kelly would earn Pro Football Focus' sixth-highest grade among all league centers (73.0); his 74.6 run-blocking grade was fourth at the position, and he was only one of seven full-time centers to allow one or fewer sacks on the year.
Kelly would be rewarded for his efforts last season, as he was selected to his first-career Pro Bowl, becoming the first Colts center to accomplish that feat since Jeff Saturday in 2010.
After the Colts picked up Kelly's fifth-year option for the 2020 season last year, he was hoping to be able to get an extension done before the start of the regular season. The Colts remained in touch with Kelly's representatives throughout the offseason, and on Thursday — 10 days before the team opens up the season on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars — the two sides got it done.
Kelly, who has been described as the "alpha dog" of the Colts' offensive line by head coach Frank Reich, said his new deal gives him all the confidence in the world to keep playing at a high level and being the leader he knows he needs to be moving forward.
"There's more than just going out there, doing your job and coming back to the huddle; it's about accountability — how do you bring the guys around you around and uplift every single person on the offense?" Kelly said.
"I just want to live up to the contract that I signed," Kelly continued. "Go out every single day, be the leader on the offensive line that I know I can be, play with the consistency I know I can and stay healthy. And so those are the things that ultimately drive me every single day."
See some of the best images of Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly.