INDIANAPOLIS – The first impression was profound, and prophetic.
It was early 2018 and Frank Reich was settling in as the Indianapolis Colts head coach. One of the first players he met was Ryan Kelly. During a subsequent discussion with Chris Ballard, Reich shared his appreciation for his new center.
If we are going to go where we want to go as an offense, then Ryan Kelly is going to have to step up and be an alpha dog
“Man,’’ Reich said, “I didn’t realize how much of an alpha dog he is.’’
Now, that alpha dog is going to eat whatever he wants.
Thursday and 11 days before the Colts open the season at Jacksonville, Kelly signed a four-year extension that ties him to the team through 2024. It’s valued at $50 million, includes a $25 million signing bonus, $34 million in guarantees and makes him the NFL’s highest-paid center.
So, Kelly’s reaction?
“I cannot complain,’’ he said with a smile during a Zoom conference call.
With his long-term financial security in hand, Kelly was faced with a short-term dilemma: how to celebrate?
“I don’t know,’’ he said. “Maybe pick up a 6-pack of beer on the way home. Who knows? Hey, it might be wild: Donato’s Pizza. There’s one on the way home.
“Maybe a new set of tires.’’
In football terms, the playbook is wide open for Ryan Kelly.
That’s a result of Ballard once again rewarding his own. In March, it was a two-year, $33 million extension for left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Previously it’s been retaining cornerback Kenny Moore II, tight end Jack Doyle (twice), guard Mark Glowinski, punter Rigoberto Sanchez, long-snapper Luke Rhodes, placekicker Adam Vinatieri (twice) and cornerback Pierre Desir, although Desir was released in the offseason.
Next, the team’s 2016 first-round draft pick (18th overall), which was invested by then-general manager Ryan Grigson.
“You’ve got a commitment from the Indianapolis Colts that they want you here for the next five years and that’s just an incredible feeling,’’ Kelly said. “So just could not be happier.’’
Indy, after all, has been home since after Kelly’s rookie season.
“I bought a house here after my rookie year and really just love this city,’’ he said. “I stay here year-round because I love it so much.
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. It’s been a long process to get here and to be honest, it’s just an emotional whirlwind, man.’’
Kelly smiled – he did a ton of that on the conference call – as he recalled his introduction to Indy. It involved owner Jim Irsay sending his private jet to bring Kelly to town for a press conference.
“Picking me up in a private jet for a 17-minute plane ride when I was a rookie,’’ he said. “I was wearing my suit and walked out thinking I was all hot (expletive).
“Obviously Chris Ballard wasn’t the GM that drafted me and I know he said he would’ve taken me in Kansas City. I don’t know if I believe him or not or if he is blowing smoke. But I really appreciate all the effort . . . he is pushing me, pushing me in the right direction, pushing me to be a leader on the offensive line and surrounded me with incredible players . . . Frank, obviously, is such an incredible direction for this team and allowing me to develop into the player I am.’’
That development began early, hit a snag, but has been accelerating. In 2019, Kelly matched his rookie season by starting all 16 games and appeared in his first Pro Bowl as an alternate.
In between, there were injury concerns. He missed nine games in ’17 with a bone defect in his left foot that required surgery along with a knee issue and concussion. In ’18, knee, neck and calf issues kept him out of four games.
It was after the frustrating ’17 season that Ballard offered a much-needed pick-me-up to a player who needed to develop into a franchise cornerstone.
“I never told the story,’’ Kelly said, “but Chris Ballard called me. I was really down on myself. I didn’t play well when I was in. I was hurt.
“Chris Ballard was like, ‘Look, let’s start over in 2018. Let’s start over fresh and I promise you we’ll make this team better.’ And he did. He made the locker room better. He made the offensive line room better.
“And he stuck with me.’’
Ballard’s message to Kelly after he signed his extension struck a chord with Kelly.
“Basically, ‘this is the leadership role that I’ve always wanted for you. This is just an extension of what you can do for us and how valuable you are for this team . . . to step up and be the leader that I saw in 2017 when I first got here that I knew you could be,’’’ Kelly shared. “That really hit me.’’
The result: a fat second contract.
“As much as you say you don’t think about it, I think you do,’’ Kelly said. “The average NFL career is 2½ years. To make it to a second contract is not only rare but it’s pretty hard, especially when you’re playing offensive line and play every single play.’’
Last season, Kelly anchored one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines and the same five started all 16 games for the first time since 2000. Kelly was on the field for 1,018 of 1,077 offensive snaps.
“The only way you can contribute in this league is to be on the field and be available,’’ he said. “Accountable/available is kind of the way I live.’’
Kelly also lives with a family-first mentality. One of the reasons Indy was so attractive to the Alabama All-American heading into the 2016 NFL Draft was its proximity to his hometown of West Chester, Ohio.
“When I got drafted here in 2016 I didn’t want to go anywhere else, to be honest,’’ he said. “I never told anybody that, besides my agent. I didn’t want to go and play in Seattle; it’s too far away.
“Indianapolis is two hours from my house (in West Chester, Ohio). This would be awesome to have my parents be able to come see all my games.’’
Kelly’s first call after signing his extension was to his fiancée, Emma. He then dialed up his mom, who was at work. Next, his dad, Dave.
His emotions got the better of him as he considered those who helped get him to this point of his life. Kelly reached out and briefly turned off the Zoom camera.
“I FaceTimed my dad and he’s not big on FaceTime,’’ he said. “We talked a little bit, then my mom called. That was tough. They’re so happy. You just want to tell them everything they’ve done for you in the past, but the words are hard to come out.
“I wouldn’t be here without them.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.