The Broncos’ search to replace John Elway has stretched into week two. At present, it looks like three serious candidates remain: the Minnesota Vikings’ assistant general manager, George Paton; the New Orleans Saints’ assistant general manager Terry Fontenot; and the Chicago Bears’ assistant director of player personnel, Champ Kelly.
Today we learned that both Fontenot and Paton will receive second interviews with the Broncos, which suggests they’ve both passed Kelly up as the leader for the general manager job. However, KOA’s Benjamin Allbright has reported there is a real possibility Kelly is hired to replace the outgoing Matt Russell.
Throughout the process, Champ Kelly has been a popular name in Broncos’ Country. On last week’s Cover 2 Broncos, I mentioned that Kelly was my personal favorite for the position with a rather large caveat. With so much of the front office work done behind closed doors, it’s impossible to fairly judge each candidate from the outside. To try to combat that, I reached out to Brad Spielberger. As a lifelong Bears fan who has worked with Over the Cap and presently Pro Football Focus, I believe he can help shine a little light on Champ Kelly.
1st and 10
Champ Kelly has been one of the rumored favorites for the Broncos’ job since it became clear he would interview. Why do you think that is?
Spielberger: Because the later questions dive a bit deeper into his football accolades, I’ll start out discussing what is often the most overlooked aspect of this process. When you really break it down, the general manager of an NFL team is more or less the CEO of a billion dollar company. There are varying degrees to which each general manager handles responsibilities outside of football, and teams certainly have C-Suite’s of executives for other departments, but the job requires a lot more than football knowledge.
After graduating from the University of Kentucky where he played on both sides of the ball as a wide receiver and a defensive back, Kelly got his Master’s in Business Administration while still being involved in football. He played in a league called the United Indoor Football League, but more impressively then became simultaneously the wide receivers coach and GM of the team in 2007 - the Lexington Horsemen made it to the UIF Championship with him in charge.
To play, coach, and be a general manager at any level is great experience. In addition, he became an NFLPA certified contract advisor, so he’s worked on the agency side and understands the perspective of the people he would be negotiating with as a general manager. It’s his breadth of knowledge of the game from every angle that sets him apart, in addition to clearly being an excellent leader.
2nd and 5
You’re more intimately familiar with the Bears personnel decisions than I am. Over Kelly’s run in Chicago, are there any notable areas where he seems to have influenced things for the better?
Spielberger: I’ve always been told the high-level acquisitions will tend to come from the owner, GM and head coach. Everyone weighs in of course, but did Champ Kelly pull the trigger on the Khalil Mack trade? Probably not. However, if you look at the smaller Bears signings in recent years, there’s a very impressive track record. Odds are the whole staff worked collaboratively on all of these moves, but filling out the roster with quality veterans that fit the scheme at a cost-effective price was most likely a significant component to Kelly’s job. The best example would be Akiem Hicks in 2016 signing for two-years, $10M. To avoid an exhaustive list, the point is made when just looking at the smaller additions from this past offseason that were extremely valuable:
Mario Edwards Jr., Tashaun Gipson Sr., Barkevious Mingo and Germain Ifedi.
None of these player are superstars by any means, but all were important contributors for the 2020 Chicago Bears. Their level of play vastly exceeded that of a minimum contract player (they all signed for the veteran minimum or very close to it). For a team dealing with a precarious salary cap situation, hits on these types of signings were exactly what the Bears needed.
3rd and 2
While I know it isn’t really possible to separate out who made what decision without being in the room or knowing people in the front office, there are those in Broncos Country scared of Kelly because of Mitch Trubisky. Do you have any insight into how that decision was made and should it concern fans?
Spielberger: Decisions of this magnitude are the ones more likely to fall squarely at the feet of the top executive. In this particular instance, it was famously known that former Bears (and Broncos) head coach John Fox did not even know what Ryan Pace planned to do on Draft night 2017. In fact, very few people in the building did. There was never a story breaking down exactly who knew what and when, but the decision to draft Trubisky has generally been characterized as one individual having very strong conviction. Regardless, Trubisky was the consensus top quarterback in the Draft that year. We can of course nitpick (or laugh at for some... not this sad Bears fan) the decision to go with Trubisky over two superstars in Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, but the Bears picked 2nd overall and the Chiefs traded up from No. 27 to No. 10 to take Mahomes.
Beyond that though, while I’m sure Kelly is still heavily involved in the college scouting process, his title was Director of Pro Scouting before he was promoted to Assistant Director of Player Personnel. Prior to joining the Bears, Kelly spent eight seasons with the Denver Broncos (2007-14), including the last five as Assistant Director of Pro Personnel. It’s probably safe to assume that with Kelly at GM, a team would then invest in a robust college scouting department with him overseeing all operations.
4th and inches
Two things I find appealing about Kelly is how he worked as a scout with the Broncos and helped bring in pieces for the Fangio defense. Theoretically, he already knows what traits he’ll need to prioritize and that could be huge as the Broncos defense is approaching a rebuild of sorts. I’m also intrigued by his background with IBM. How could Champ Kelly or any new GM begin to incorporate more analytics into running an NFL franchise?
Spielberger: His connection to Vic Fangio is undoubtedly notable, particularly through the lens of adding defensive pieces. The Bears have made it a clear priority to spend on defense during Kelly’s (and Fangio’s) tenures in Chicago, as has Denver. In 2020, the Broncos were first and the Bears fourth in cap spend on defense, and both teams were also top five in 2019.
Clearly the two franchises in their current states have a strong emphasis on building stout defensive units, and with the Broncos loading up on offense with early draft picks the last few years, one would imagine perhaps they supplement that with some defensive spending. Kelly could have a very similar situation as the one in Chicago in front of him. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb currently combine to make up the Khalil Mack contract more or less, and odds are Justin Simmons is about to surpass Bears safety Eddie Jackson with a big time extension (whether that deal comes from Denver remains to be seen, of course). Kelly and Fangio can work together to maintain this Broncos defense and improve it even further.
Kelly’s background as a Software/Quality Engineer with IBM is certainly intriguing as well, he’s clearly a very smart man, and as you suggested would perhaps be more open to incorporating analytics into his work. I will say it does not currently appear to be a big component of the Chicago Bears approach, but that is of course not entirely up to Kelly. A front office can use analytics to better understand Draft pick positional values and draft trade values, to help prioritize/inform positional spending in free agency, and of course to further scout pro players by studying trends in aging, injury recovery, athletic profiles, alignment data to identify scheme fits, you name it.
Whether it’s Kelly or another candidate, the Broncos’ offseason is littered with opportunities and a few potential pitfalls. If you were the choice, how would you approach the roster going forward?
Spielberger: This may be controversial in Denver, but in my opinion the Broncos have to seriously look at the top quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. Picking No. 9 overall obviously takes them out of the running for Trevor Lawrence, but Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance could perhaps be attainable. From a contractual standpoint, the Broncos are also just not very heavily invested in Lock. Fellow 2019 Draft quarterback Daniel Jones - taken No. 6 overall - has a contract that is almost as much on a per-year basis as Lock’s is in total. Denver should feel comfortable adding competition to the quarterback room whether it be with a high pick, a late round flier maybe to light a fire under Lock, or even if someone like a Matt Stafford were to become available in a trade. This Broncos roster is pretty solid on both sides of the ball, and even in a tough AFC West, they may not be that far away at all if you dropped a good quarterback into the equation.
Beyond that big, franchise-defining move, I’d prioritize re-signing Justin Simmons and then would look to sign a free agent cornerback or two. I really don’t believe the Broncos are that far off as a roster. I wouldn’t spend a whole lot this offseason unless it was on a quarterback, and would continue to build through the Draft.