There’s a bit of an odd story brewing with a 2017 NFL draft prospect. And it already has reached NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, which doesn’t happen every day before a prospect enters the league, even as fairly well known as the player is.
Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly, the nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, put together a flashy but inconsistent college career in two years against the rugged SEC, even leading the conference in passing yards and beating Alabama in 2015. Even with character concerns and having suffered a torn ACL and meniscus late in the 2016 season, Kelly was one of the better senior quarterbacks in the country.
Basically, he had put together a good enough resume after a circuitous path to warrant an NFL scouting combine invitation. And Kelly was invited — and then had his invitation later rescinded.
Kelly’s flight from Pensacola, Fla. to Indianapolis was booked, he appeared on the league’s initial list of invites and even had a uniform number assigned to him for the event. But at some point between him signing the combine acceptance papers and last week, when he was called with the bad news that he wouldn’t be making the trip along with 330 other NFL hopefuls, Kelly was deemed no longer worth inviting. But why?
Kelly’s agent wanted answers. Vance McAllister, who left the Louisiana House of Representatives to become a sports agent, reached out to National Football Scouting, which runs the combine, and its president, Jeff Foster, the man who called Kelly to let him know he wasn’t going to the combine anymore, for clarity.
The NFL has recently changed its policy on extending combine offers — or rescinding offers — to players with questionable backgrounds, and the wording is vague enough to give the league enough leeway to make a judgment call on any borderline cases.
The new guidelines read:
“As in the past, draft-eligible prospects will not be permitted to participate in any aspect of the Combine if a background check reveals a conviction of a felony or misdemeanor involving violence or use of a weapon, domestic violence, sexual offense and/or sexual assault. The NFL also reserves the right to deny participation of any prospect dismissed by their university or the NCAA.”
Kelly pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct on what was deemed a non-criminal charge in January 2015 following an altercation nine months earlier outside a bar in Buffalo. The police report stated that Kelly traded blows with two bouncers and later said, “I’m going to go to my car and get my AK47 and spray this place.” Kelly also allegedly got into an altercation with police while being arrested. As part of his guilty plea, charges were dropped and Kelly was sentenced to 50 hours of community service. The case was widely reported, and the NFL surely knew about it prior to inviting him.
“The court records are now sealed, but what you know about the case, what the public knows, that’s what the NFL knows,” McAllister said by phone Thursday night. “As of this afternoon, we called the court in New York and asked if anyone had requested those documents be unsealed. They said no one had.”
But the NFL apparently dug into the bar fight more and didn’t like something it discovered about it. Although Foster would not talk specifically about Kelly’s (or any other player’s) individual case, and though he had nothing to do with the decision to rescind the invitation, he did provide Shutdown Corner a guideline of how the process unfolds and how a player might come to be uninvited.
“Part of the invitation and then registration process is for players to provide us information and then to authorize the NFL to perform background checks,” Foster said by phone on Thursday. “So if at any time during the process — either before we extend an invitation or after — if we find that a player doesn’t meet the criteria that the NFL has outlined to be able to receive an invitation, then that invitation can be rescinded.
“That is made very clear to the athletes when we deliver our invitation. It’s something the players see almost immediately on their electronic invitation.”
Foster would not confirm as much, but this certainly reads as if more has been unearthed on Kelly from the bar incident than what has been widely reported. It’s not as if Kelly doesn’t have a lot of character red flags attached to his name. He had trouble at his first high school, being suspended and later kicked off the team, and then was dismissed from Clemson in April 2014 (prior to the bar incident) for what was deemed “conduct detrimental to the team.”
But as McAllister called around over the past few weeks, he eventually was led to believe that it was the bar incident alone that the NFL balked on and that something specific about it was what led to Kelly not being allowed to participate in Indy. Something the NFL learned after they had deemed him invitation-worthy initially.
First, McAllister and fellow Kelly agent Ray Oubre reached out to Jim Kelly, who sought answers from NFL Operations executive vice president Troy Vincent. When Vincent did call Kelly back nearly a week later, he provided no additional details on why the league reversed its stance other than, McAllister said, to suggest that Chad Kelly could “enter a program” to help boost his image with NFL teams.
It’s not clear what kind of program Vincent was suggesting Kelly enter. A call by Shutdown Corner to Vincent seeking comment was not returned.
Jim Kelly then reached out to Goodell, with whom the Hall of Famer is close. Goodell passed it onto Jeff Pash, Goodell’s second in command, whom Goodell said would look into the case. Pash spoke to Kelly on Friday, and Kelly suggested he speak directly with McAllister. Pash agreed to the call as long as he could have chief disciplinary officer B. Todd Jones on the phone with him.
McAllister had a “heated” call with Pash, but Jones was not on the line. Instead, Jones and McAllister finally connected on Tuesday, and Jones told him that the severity of the initial charges (plus the ugly look of the surveillance video that had been posted by police online) and the disorderly conduct conviction were the reasons why Kelly would not be invited and that “good lawyering” was the reason it was pleaded down to a non-criminal misdemeanor. In the mind of McAllister, the reduced charge was tantamount to a parking ticket “or playing your music too loud.”
Added McAllister, “If I charge you with, say, molestation — anyone can say anything — and of course you get off, well, then no one should consider the initial charges. If it’s bogus, it’s bogus. We need to deal with the facts of the case and the final outcome, not what was said originally.”
But neither Jones nor Pash — nor Goodell, for that matter — would reconsider. Chad Kelly would not be allowed to attend the combine.
“It’s clear to me that Troy Vincent, Todd Jones and [NFL senior vice president of football administration and club services] Rod Graves were the ones who made this decision not to let Chad go to the combine,” McAllister said, “and I still can’t exactly figure out what changed from when they first invited him until now.”
In theory, the combine would be the perfect place for Kelly to try to assuage the decision makers for the 32 teams that he could be trusted. League evaluators will tell you that more so than the on-field workouts conducted there, the medical and character evaluations are the most valuable portions of the process. Most of teams’ scouting has been completed, but they get an up-close look at players — either MRI results or by facing team officials’ questions in organized 15-minute interview blocks.
However, with the new guidelines in place to keep players with questionable backgrounds from being afforded the privilege of attending, the NFL wasn’t about to make an exception with Kelly. This fell under the same umbrella as the league not extending invitations at all to Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon and Baylor’s Ishmael Zamora. The only difference with Kelly is that the league clearly felt more uneasy with his case the more they looked into it and decided to revoke his privilege.
But why, then, did the league invite Louisville’s Devonte Fields, who was accused of punching an ex-girlfriend and waving a gun at her? Misdemeanor assault charges were dropped after he agreed to anger management classes.
Or what about Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook, who twice was arrested for domestic violence complaints? Like Fields, Westbrook’s charges in both incidents were dropped. But was it “better lawyering” or was there a clear difference in the cases, at least as they related to the NFL’s combine invite policy? That’s what’s not clear.
Fields and Westbrook will have 32 job interviews next week in Indianapolis while Kelly continues rehabbing his knee at home. He and McAllister briefly considered bringing him to Indy to be available to talk to teams but decided against it.
“He told me, ‘It wasn’t meant to be. I am going to have to get to the league another way, but I know I have the talent to play.’ He didn’t want to be a distraction by being there,” McAllister said.
Despite not being able to play because of his knee, Kelly did spend a few days at the Senior Bowl around the staffs of the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns and was able to meet there with any of the other 30 NFL teams. And he’ll continue to work back into shape and plans to work out at Ole Miss’ pro day on April 3, but he won’t be eligible to attend the combine medical recheck in mid-April just prior to the draft.
Kelly now has several red flags against him — questionable height (a reported 6-foot-1), a gunslinger’s playing style that might not appeal to all coaches, character concerns that were deemed serious enough to keep him out of Indy and two torn knee ligaments on the mend — as he tries to make it to the NFL.
Is the story amplified because of Kelly’s last name and who is uncle is? Of course. But his story at least outlines the trouble the league faces when it considers college players with sketchy backgrounds as they try to prove themselves worthy for financial investment.
Some fall outside the gray area of the guidelines and are allowed to state their cases, both in cleats and under the white-hot glare of the combine’s rigorous interview sessions. Others, such as Kelly, must take other measures to calm NFL teams’ fears about him. Maybe, though after three college stops (including one at East Mississippi Community College, better known to TV watchers as Last Chance U) Kelly was meant to take the long road toward proving he belongs. It hasn’t been easy for him up until now, and this phase of his NFL pursuit will be no different.
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