Inside Chad Kelly's anxious NFL Draft experience, right down to the very last pick - The Buffalo News
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Inside Chad Kelly's anxious NFL Draft experience, right down to the very last pick

WHEATFIELD – Chad Kelly slept on the basement floor Thursday night.

No NFL team selected him in the first round of the NFL Draft. Although expected, he underscored his circumstance with a reminder that his pro career won't merely start from the ground up, but from the subterranean.

"I wanted to feel what it was like at the bottom," Kelly said. "I could've slept in the bed. But I wanted to feel that itch."

The quarterback from St. Joe's and Ole Miss didn't get drafted Friday night in the second or third round either. His injuries and off-field behavior had sunk him.

Again, he slept on the floor.

Kelly woke up Saturday morning in a fog. He watched his little brother play lacrosse at St. Joe's while hoping an NFL team would call. None did, so he returned to his parents' house in Wheatfield and brooded.

Two hundred and fifty draft choices had been made. Kelly, who about 15 minutes earlier barked at his family to turn off the TV, stormed out with three picks still unannounced.

Kelly declared the draft over.

His own grandfather  grew tired of waiting and had been long gone.

Denver Broncos make Chad Kelly Mr. Irrelevant, and he loves it

But within 30 seconds of tossing a football with Casey Kelly in the front yard, Chad's phone rang.

The Denver Broncos ended Kelly's agony, taking him with 253rd and final pick. Broncos executive and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway welcomed him to the team.

The NFL Draft's last selection traditionally is feted as Mr. Irrelevant to honor "football's underdog." There will be a week of festivities in Southern California, a visit to NFL Network's studios, a Disneyland trip and a regatta to raise money for charity.

Sleeping in the basement. The last pick. Mocked. Irrelevance.

"I've had some bad breaks the last couple months," Kelly said. "You just got to keep working through them. At the end of the day, I got put in the right situation with great players around me."

2017 NFL Draft: QB Chad Kelly is 'Mr. Irrelevant'

The moment ended an exasperating three days that had the Kelly family on edge.

Kelly alternated between watching NFL Draft coverage and pacing around the house.

"All I need is a playbook," Kelly, slumped on the couch, said late in the fifth round. "All I need is a damn playbook."

At that moment, ESPN, transmitting from his parents' house, captured a depressing still photo of Kelly. He was drooped next to his mother in an otherwise empty living room. A blanket draped his shoulders.

The snapshot incensed the Kellys once it hit Twitter. They felt ESPN exploited a fleeting moment by reducing them to a joke. A more accurate shot would've shown Chad surrounded by his family and friends for almost the entire afternoon. The blanket was to warm up after a couple hours in the St. Joe's lacrosse bleachers, watching his little brother, Casey.

Kevin and Charlene Kelly ordered ESPN's cameraman to stop transmitting video of their son and changed the channel to NFL Network.

Tensions rose as the seventh, eighth, ninth quarterback went off the board. Three kickers and a long snapper were drafted ahead of Kelly.

"If I don't get hurt I'm going in the first or second round, I think," Kelly said Friday night at the family dining-room table.

From his chair he could see the second round play out on a television in the living room. He was mellow in this interlude aside from a jimmy leg. Kelly's cell phone was several feet away. He didn't constantly check for calls.

"It's crazy," Kelly said, "because you're a fifth-year senior, and you see all these guys you took on campus visits getting drafted before you."

The symbolism of Kelly's sleeping habits went deeper than pro football. Two and a half years earlier, Kelly experienced the lowest night of his life. With pepper spray in his eyes, he cried on the cold floor of a jail cell in Buffalo City Court's basement.

Kelly came back from his arrest to dominate the preeminent Southeastern Conference. He emerged from an abyss by showing he could perform.

He knows now he must do it all over.

"I'm going in to compete my tail off once I get healthy," Kelly said.

The Broncos have only two other quarterbacks on their roster, Trevor Siemian and 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch.

Watch: Chad Kelly discusses being Mr. Irrelevant and playing for the Denver Broncos

Kelly's talent is unmistakable. The record-breaking statistics he compiled in the SEC and workout metrics confirm his athleticism.

But teams had trouble committing to a player with a dreadful combination of injuries and off-field issues. Bad marks in one of those categories can be enough to doom a prospect's chances.

The mood in the Kellys' home was loose Friday night when the second round began.

Kelly, his surgically repaired throwing wrist in a cast, shook hands lefty as folks arrived, about 45 family members and friends in all.

He sipped from a Jim Kelly Pro Football Hall of Fame on-the-rocks glass.

Uncle Jim was there Friday night. Jim Kelly didn't have to wait long to learn the Buffalo Bills had selected him 14th overall in 1983.

"It doesn't matter where he gets picked," Jim Kelly said Friday night. He had a prior obligation that prevented him from returning Saturday. "He has to prove himself no matter what. We knew he wasn't going on the first night, but even the guys who got drafted in the first round need to prove they can play in camp.

"He's the same as any other quarterback. And your second contract is the most important contract anyway."

The family perked up whenever the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers were on the clock. The Kellys also detected a strong vibe from Chad's pre-draft visit to Kansas City, but the Chiefs drafted a quarterback Thursday night.

And, of course, with so many Bills fans in attendance, the house snapped to attention when the Bills traded up to pick 37th overall.

Chad Kelly made a pre-draft visit to One Bills Drive but came away feeling there was little interest. As a local, Kelly didn't count toward the 30 visits each NFL team is allowed to make. So the Bills had nothing to lose. But Kelly said they didn't bother to have their doctors check out Kelly's injuries.

Thurman Thomas announced the Bills' second-round pick at the draft in Philadelphia. Before taking the stage, Thomas sent Jim Kelly a text to say he was going to announce Chad's name whether it was on the draft card or not. The Bills took East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones.

"I don't care when I get picked," Chad Kelly said Friday night. "You play to be the best. You don't play for money."

Chad Kelly enters the NFL in recovery mode. He bears surgical scars and a rap sheet.

The Buffalo News reached out to several NFL scouts for their thoughts on Kelly. One NFC executive was asked which would scare off teams more, Kelly's injuries or off-field issues.

"Yes," the executive replied.

Perhaps the worst break of all came in April, when the NFL uninvited him to the scouting combine in Indianapolis.

That's where all the teams with all their scouts and all their coaches gather to interview and evaluate prospects. Players with medical issues get checked by NFL doctors. Players with off-field issues get to explain themselves.

The NFL pulled Kelly's combine invitation because of a new policy meant to punish the player, but in actuality punishes the teams unsure whether to invest a draft pick on someone they still have questions about.

But in April 2014, Clemson chucked Kelly from its program after a sideline blowup during its spring game. Eight months later, a week after Kelly committed to Ole Miss, he made headlines for allegedly threatening to shoot up Encore on Pearl Street after bouncers kicked him out.

Running back Joe Mixon, not allowed to attend the draft because Oklahoma State suspended him a year for punching a woman, went 48th overall to the Cincinnati Bengals.

"Just give me a chance," Kelly said he would've told teams at the combine, "and I'll prove you right. We'll have the last laugh together.

"Everybody wants to be the one to say, 'I told you so,' but I want to be the one who proves that franchise made the right pick.

"I got big dreams."

Without a combine opportunity, Kelly's workout for NFL scouts April 3 at Ole Miss was crucial.

Then he injured his wrist after 12 throws. Three pins were inserted, preventing him from throwing until July. His right ACL was sewn together in 2013 and 2016. He had sports hernia surgery in 2016.

"If he hadn't gotten hurt," Ole Miss football patriarch Archie Manning said two days before the draft, "Chad was anywhere from a late 'one' to an early 'three,' depending on how teams see him.

"The injuries hurt. Somebody might reach out in the third round, or maybe he doesn't get drafted, and that's OK. He can prove what kind of quarterback he is. He's just got to be patient."

There were grumbles in the living room Saturday afternoon, when the Cleveland Browns took Caleb Brantley to open the sixth round. Brantley, a Florida defensive tackle, faces misdemeanor battery charge for striking a woman two weeks ago.

Anxiety spiked about 20 minutes later. Kelly's phone rang. An NFL team wasn't on the line, but his agent wanted to pass along word the Broncos wanted to sign Kelly if he went undrafted.

More names were called. Kelly paced between the living room and the kitchen.

"They're sleeping on you, Chad!" his dad said.

"Every single one," Chad replied.

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USA Today surveyed anonymous NFL scouts to slot the top 10 quarterbacks in this year's draft class. Kelly was tacked onto the end, unranked as a "wild card." USA Today wrote Kelly is "a gamer and big-time leader," but "a knucklehead everywhere else."

NFL.com rated Kelly the eighth-best quarterback.

What transpired Thursday night seemed to help Kelly's draft stock. Three quarterbacks were off the board within the top 12 selections. Each time, the team traded up to land its man.

"You wish you were there," Kelly said Friday, "but you can't control how things happen."

The Chicago Bears dumbfounded the draft, trading away significant draft assets to move up one rung and take North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky second overall, a move so stunning NFL Network's analysts didn't mention Trubisky's name in between the trade and the announcement.

The Chiefs wanted their quarterback about as badly. They swapped first-round positions with the Bills by sacrificing this year's third-round pick and next year's first-rounder. The Chiefs moved up 17 slots to grab Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes.

Two picks later, the Houston Texans gave next year's first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns to move up 13 spots. They selected Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.

"Deshaun should've went first," Kelly said. They were teammates for about four months. Clemson won the national championship in January. Watson was a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Kelly, meanwhile, had to slink off to East Mississippi Community College. He was phenomenal albeit in backwater obscurity.

Then, in just two seasons at Ole Miss, he joined Archie Manning and Eli Manning as the school's most successful quarterbacks.

Kelly in 2015 became the first Ole Miss quarterback to beat Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same season and the first to beat five top-25 teams in the same season. He piloted the highest-scoring offense in school history. Ole Miss won 10 games, most since 1959.

He broke 14 school passing records that year. His 4,542 total yards and 4,042 passing yards not only led the SEC, they also ranked third in conference history.

Kelly petitioned the NFL's college advisory committee for a 2016 draft grade. The advisory committee rates underclassmen as potential first- or second-round draft picks, or neither. The evaluations offer guidance for turning pro.

The advisory committee projected he would not get drafted within the first two rounds. NFL scouts in interviews with The Buffalo News expressed skepticism Kelly hadn't yet done enough to overcome his off-field question marks, that another season at Ole Miss would suit him.

But those sentiments came down before Kelly dominated Ole Miss' first Sugar Bowl in 45 years. He was MVP, completing 21 of 33 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns and running 10 times for 73 yards against Oklahoma State.

Kelly decided to return for his senior season with thoughts of further establishing himself as a player and an adult.

He also recalled an adolescent promise he once made to his father about winning the Heisman Trophy someday.

The next 16 months unraveled a series of developments that went against Kelly. There would be no top-25 finish, no bowl game, Heisman candidacy.

Ole Miss wasn't nearly the same team. Five of Kelly's teammates were drafted, three in the first round. He lost top receiver Laquon Treadwell and blindside protector Laremy Tunsil.

Ole Miss struggled. Kelly's season ended in the ninth game with another right knee injury. Alabama beat Ole Miss, as did Arkansas, LSU and Auburn in consecutive weeks.

In those nine games, though, Kelly led the SEC and ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing yards and total yards per game. He completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,758 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He rushed for 332 yards and five TDs.

"He absolutely carried the whole football team," Archie Manning said. "It was just so unfortunate he blew out his knee late in the year and doesn't get to play in the Senior Bowl and all those type of things. Then this wrist injury ... It's just some bad, bad luck.

"He's just got to get it behind him. I still think Chad has shown he's going to get over this. He's shown some people enough."

Kelly, Mahomes, Watson and Trubisky participated in ESPN's annual "Sport Science" combine show. The series uses technology to measure player performance, and Kelly broke records dating back eight years.

Kelly hit 19 straight targets from 10 yards away and set a "Sport Science" record by hitting the target on all 10 of his passes from 15 yards away. He broke another record by hitting a moving target on 11 of his 12 throws.

His overall "Sport Science" score was highest in six years. Past participants include Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel and Cardale Jones (Buffalo's entire QB depth chart last year), Colin Kaepernick, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.

Even with NFL scouts not totally sold on Kelly after one year at Ole Miss, it was impossible not to wonder what would have happened had he entered last year's draft.

"You think about it once or twice," Kelly said Friday night of his decision to return for his senior season.

Those close to Kelly still believe he made a wise choice to stay in school. Kelly completed his degree. He will walk at graduation May 13. He made the dean's list and SEC honor roll.

"You can't look back," Manning said. "He did the right thing coming back.

"He wasn't ready. His grades are higher now because of what he did his senior year. He showed so much improvement. He's a worker."

Mr. Irrelevant still has much to prove.

But he's getting his shot.

"God had this planned," Kelly said Saturday in his back yard. "What are the chances I hurt my wrist on the biggest day of my career?

"You keep on pushing. God's for giving you these chances. You just got to make the most of your opportunities when they come."

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