With so much offseason media attention on a two-man race for starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos, it’s apropos that John Elway’s two QB selections last weekend in the NFL Draft were “Mr. Irrelevant” and a UDFA.
But there’s a chance either/both of those selections will be anything but irrelevant.
Chad “Mr. Irrelevant” Kelly from Ole Miss and Kyle “UDFA” Sloter from the University of Northern Colorado may just surprise Broncos Country and make this a four-man quarterback race instead of just two.
No doubt it would be a long shot for either Kelly or Sloter to become next season’s starter, but as a writer for Ole Miss’ Red Cup Rebellion pointed out, “If a guy from Northwestern who was once nicknamed “Checkdown Trevor” by his own defense can become the starter in Denver without ever having thrown an NFL pass, what’s to say Kelly can’t worm his way into the competition sooner rather than later?”
And with that line of thinking, why not also a guy who was dubbed a “secret small-program super-sleeper” as a draft pick?
Kelly and Sloter will come in with the same rookie learning curve issues that Paxton Lynch faced last season – adapting from a spread offense to playing under center, learning the playbook, progressing through reads, and facing bigger, faster defenses barreling through a suspect offensive line (this last issue hopefully being improved this season) – so it’s definitely a long shot either one is more than just the obvious third-stringer and/or “camp body/practice squad guy.”
But given the potential talent of the two drafted quarterbacks – Kelly, a QB whose arm would likely have garnered him an early round draft pick had it not been for stupid off-field actions and a couple of recent injuries; and Sloter, a very under-the-radar prospect who displays some interesting upside – the so-called “50-50” competition just might become “25-25-25-25” if Vance Joseph and John Elway are true to their words.
“It’s for every player on our football team. Every job is always open,” Joseph said in the post-draft presser, noting that the team mantra “iron sharpens iron” is built on that premise. “Every year, we’re going to acquire players to make our team better. If they can’t make our team better, that means the guys we have already are good enough. It’s important to bring in guys every year to make guys compete for their jobs every year.”
As a first-time starter and former seventh-round pick, Trevor Siemian was a serviceable quarterback last season, making mistakes that first-time QBs are often allowed, if not expected, to make. But when you are in charge of leading the defending Super Bowl champions, that “room” is more like a closet.
The former Northwestern Wildcat threw for 3,401 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Lack of red zone pizzazz was a constant problem as was quick decision making for whome to throw the ball and when, often holding on just long enough to get sacked, lose the down and end up with another three-and-out.
But Siemian was not without his redeeming factors. Facing the Carolina Panthers in a prime time Super Bowl rematch to open the season, No. 13 proved he can handle the pressure of being an NFL quarterback. Whether he can really handle the team and make a big leap this season is yet to be determined.
Lynch, who started two games while Siemian nursed a shoulder injury, was unable to wrest the starting job away as he underwhelmed in his debut and followup and struggled to grasp the playbook. But these were not unforeseen as Lynch was always considered “raw” for NFL play.
His two touchdowns and one interception on the season were underwhelming for the rookie out of Memphis, known for using his legs to extend plays and big arm to get downfield.
But suspect play calling for the rookie’s strengths could be added to the list of reasons/excuses for his lackluster performances.
And that brings us to 2017 where Siemian and Lynch have reportedly improved their starting capital – Siemian with shoulder surgery to take care of his injuries and Lynch with dedicated attention to improving his footwork.
But given the hurdles yet to be conquered, these two could quickly find their predicted quarterback battle has a few new competitors. Ironically, Kelly and Lynch duked it out in a Memphis-Ole Miss offensive shootout in 2015 in which Lynch and his Memphis Tigers were the unlikely winner.
“I think they’re great guys to learn from, first and foremost,” Chad Kelly said after he was drafted. “They’re in that position because they’ve worked really hard and they’re great players. I’m going to join that room and get started in learning as much as I can from those guys.”
Kelly, a former Clemson quarterback who transferred to Ole Miss after getting kicked off the team his freshman year, threw for 4,042 yards in 2015 and finished his Ole Miss career tossing 50 touchdowns and running into the end zone another 15 times. In his first nine games in 2016 before tearing his ACL, he had thrown 19 touchdowns.
During three years of Division I football, Kelly had a 63.9 percent completion rate, making 513 of 803 passes for 6,858 yards.
Chad Kelly could eventually take over for Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch, but for now he's Mr. Irrelevant https://t.co/zeJLUJYvvd— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) April 29, 2017
Before injuring his knee last November, Kelly was the SEC's leader in total yards – averaging 343.3 a game - and the Rebels were 14-8 when he started.
The 23-year-old quarterback is known for being able to read defenses and throw deep passes with accuracy. And he is not afraid to challenge double coverages - though one critic noted that he has been known “to throw YOLO passes.” Yet we also already know that in this ESPN Sport Science segment, Chad Kelly scored the highest of any quarterback ever tested.
But it’s Kelly’s off-field behavior that is probably his biggest red flag - and something he and current Broncos coaches insist is a thing of the past.
Kicked out of Clemson, Kelly has been involved in a couple incidents since, showing rather poor decision-making even if the outcomes were relatively minor.
Kelly was involved in a brawl that broke out at his brother's high school football game last October, and he also pleaded guilty in January 2015 for disorderly conduct after arguing with bouncers at a bar in Buffalo in December 2014, where he reportedly also threatened to get an "AK47 and spray this place."
Joseph and Elway say they vetted Kelly prior to the draft to make sure he was ready to put that kind of behavior behind him. Elway personally reached out to Kelly’s uncle, fellow Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, to ask if he’d vouch for the kid.
"I called his uncle, and he said he's a good kid. I said, 'OK. That's all I need.' I trust Jim with that,” said Elway of his contemporary and fellow Hall-of-Famer. “We're fully confident that Chad is going to be able to come up here and understand the situation that he's in. The one thing about him is he's a great competitor. I think that's why we're really excited about him.”
The super-sleeper secret weapon
For anyone outside the 970 area code, Sloter is not a known name – nor quarterback.
But to those in the know, he’s a gunslinger, clocking as the second-fastest passer in the 2017 NFL Draft class at 58 mph – and not unfamiliar with QB competition.
At 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, the Atlanta native first signed on at the University of Southern Mississippi. The entire saga of Sloter’s college football career is detailed beautifully by R.C. Fisher as well as through this interview with Behind the Steel Curtain - but the truncated version begins with Sloter being red-shirted his freshman year at Southern Miss with an expectation for taking the following year. A surprising 0-12 record that season (after going 12-2 the year before) led to a coaching change and a new depth chart; Sloter was fourth.
So the 6-foot-5, 225-pound athletic quarterback moved to wide receiver just to get on the playing field. Two years at wide receiver with limited touches, Sloter stayed patient until a new offensive scheme meant eliminating the third wide receiver/slot position.
Transferring to UNC his junior year, Sloter competed for the quarterback position but with limited time in the system, the coaches put him in at wide receiver. However, an injury to the starter later in the season, moved Sloter to the backup QB role. He threw one pass that season and it was incomplete.
Starting as backup for the 2016 season, Sloter did get to play the second half of the first game. He went 0-3 with an interception.But his fate changed the following week when the starter went down with a shoulder injury and a then-senior with virtually no playing time as a college quarterback was asked to step in.
In response, Sloter completed 25 of 32 passes for 408 yards and threw six touchdowns while running for 41 yards and another score to lift UNC over Abilene Christian 55-52.
Sloter then proceeded to set a slew of school records last season – 29 passing touchdowns in a season, six touchdowns in a game (twice, in fact), and 438 yards in a game.
The adversity I face doesn't define me, but what I do with it does. I've been in this situation my whole career. Ready to work! #gobroncos— Kyle Sloter (@KyleSloter) April 30, 2017
So if Sloter’s college football experience is any indication, this is a kid who will not give up and has some poise to handle the pressure.
Which is exactly what he’s planning to do in Denver, beginning today. While so many pro players like to talk about playing with a chip on their shoulder and proving people wrong, Sloter wants to prove to Elway and the scouts that this time they got it right.
"That's what I'm most excited about," Sloter told the Greeley Tribune. "Getting in there and grinding, trying to prove them right."
A competition of four
Likely Sloter and Kelly (who is still recovering from the ACL as well as a thumb injury suffered in the spring) will battle in training camp for the No.3 spot on the depth chart – though both will undoubtedly be aiming their sights a little higher.
"[The Broncos] told me they felt like they got the best undrafted quarterback in the country," Sloter said. "It just felt like a really good fit and a really good situation."
In answering a generic question about competition among the draft picks and the roster players, Elway reiterated a theme – every player is fighting for his spot and rank on the roster.
So it shouldn’t surprise Broncos Country if our “quarterback competition” discussions this summer include an expanded list of names.
“You know what? Everyone who's going to make the team, they make the team,” Elway said in his post-draft presser. “No one else makes it for them. They've got to go make the team themselves, so that's why it's up to them.”
How do you think this QB battle might turn out?
This poll is closed
It’s still a dead heat between Siemian and Lynch
"Oh Paxton, my Paxton!"
I think when Kelly is healthy, he’ll make a run for starter
I’m liking this UNC kid - SLOTER FOR STARTER!