After passing for over 5,000 yards and 44 TDs last season, 6’7” rookie QB Cole Kelley tries to find a home in Washington’s rather crowded quarterback room.
Washington currently has 14 UDFAs and a pair of 7th round drafted rookies on the roster, but that list of players is subject to a lot of change. In previous years, we’ve put together profiles of players only to see them cut by the team a day before the profile was set to publish (or a day after it did publish). In fact, in just the 4 weeks or so that followed the 2022 draft, we saw a lot of churn in this part of the roster among both UDFAs and veteran free agents, and this week, 2 UDFAs that we’d already profiled were released to make room for 2 DBs from the USFL.
These articles about the bottom-of-the-roster players are not intended to suggest that any given player is bound for glory; rather, the articles are intended to celebrate the ongoing fight of each player to extend his NFL dream.
For those of you who appreciate the fight of the underdog, I hope you enjoy today’s article and the others that will follow in this “2022 UDFA Spotlight” series.
Even by NFL standards, Carson Wentz is a big QB at 6’5” and 237 pounds; Cole Kelley is bigger. Standing 6’7” and 250 pounds, Kelley is one of the biggest signal callers in the NFL in 2022. He could be one of the best UDFAs signed by the Commanders this offseason.
Cole Kelley started out at Arkansas, an SEC/FBS school, but transferred to Southeastern Louisiana, an FCS school, for his junior season. Kelley actually started 4 games for the Razorbacks in the latter half of his (redshirt) freshman season (going 2-2), but was unable to win the starting job as a sophomore, and attempted only 67 regular season passes in 2018. In November 2018, Kelley was arrested and charged with a DWI. This incident and a relative lack of playing time, resulted in the quarterback’s decision to enter the transfer portal.
Kelley transferred before the 2019 season; after serving as the backup quarterback in 2019, Kelley emerged as the undisputed starter the following season and got extensive playtime in 2020 and 2021. He had a good season in 2020, but an incredible one in 2021.
Look at his stats for 13 games in his final college season:
406-of-552 passing for 5,124 yards, 44 TDs, 10 INT; 161 rushes for 491 yards and 16 TDs
Those are simply magical statistics for Kelley, who won the 2021 Walter Payton Award, given to the top FCS offensive player. He also received first-team All-American FCS honors in both 2020 and 2021, and set the FCS all-time record for career completion percentage.
Kelley went undrafted this year, and signed with the Commanders as a UDFA immediately after the draft.
Washington’s QB room looks a bit crowded at the moment, with 3 players in Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke and 5th round draft pick Sam Howell from North Carolina who all seem virtually assured of a spot on the 53-man roster.
If the 24-year-old Kelley has his eye on 2023, however, signing with Washington could have been a strategically useful move. Carson Wentz will either be here or not in 2023, depending on his play in ‘22, but, having just drafted Howell, it seems unlikely that the team will hold onto Taylor Heinicke next year. That means that, if Kelley spends this season on the Commanders practice squad, he seems well-positioned to move onto the 53-man roster next year, right behind Sam Howell.
The real question is, does this giant quarterback, who transferred from the SEC to the Southland Conference have what it takes to play in the NFL?
I realize that 5,000 yards, 44 passing TDs, 490 rushing yards and double-digit rushing TDs sounds like a feat that would be almost impossible to match — the kind of performance that unquestionably qualifies you for an NFL career.
That’s probably what Taylor Heinicke thought at the end of his 2012 season at ODU when he put up 5,076 yards, 44 passing TDs, 470 rush yards and 11 rushing TDs. As we’ve seen from him, these single-season eye-popping stats in college aren’t meaningless, but they may not guarantee success in the NFL. The fact that Kelley had that kind of season in 2021 and still went undrafted makes it clear that NFL decision-makers aren’t totally sold on him, but, in every draft profile I read about Kelley, the evaluator clearly saw something in Kelley that made him impossible to dismiss as an NFL prospect.
Tony Pauline said of Cole Kelley, “He’s a throwback pocket passer with the arm necessary to make all the passes, but he must do a better job protecting the ball and accurately deliver his passes. Kelley possesses a big upside, yet at the same time, needs a lot of work on his game before he’ll be NFL-ready.”
Here’s the summary from draftdive.com:
As a developmental prospect, Kelley’s unparalleled size and fluid release will endear him to teams. His production, albeit at the FCS level, is sure to grab the attention of evaluators. However, his decision not to test at either the NFL Combine, or Southeastern’s pro-day may create questions about his overall athleticism.
Since joining Southeastern, Kelley has been praised as a leader and locker-room presence, helping to assuage concerns stemming from his off-field issues at Arkansas. Although he still struggles to make multiple reads and identify pressure, Kelley’s ceiling is undeniable. Someone will take a shot on his potential, the real question is which team believes they can get the most out of his raw abilities.
Kelley’s profile, as a prospect, is similar to that of 49ers’ quarterback [and former Redskin draft pick] Nate Sudfeld. The former Indiana quarterback mirrored Kelley in both size and play style at the collegiate level.
Ultimately, I believe Kelley is best suited for a role as a developmental, third-string quarterback. He should have the opportunity to learn and develop for a few seasons before possibly taking on a larger role. His size and mobility will provide him early opportunities to serve as a gadget player in goal line formations. However, his lack of consistent mechanics will prevent him from playing significant snaps early on in his career.
It sounds as if Kelley might have found the right spot to optimize his NFL opportunity in Washington, where nothing at all will be expected of him as a rookie, but where he will likely have the opportunity to climb the depth chart in subsequent seasons. When it’s all said and done, Kelley could turn out to be the best UDFA signed in 2022.
For a knowledgeable film breakdown of Cole Kelley, CLICK HERE to access a Steeler Depot article that was posted the week before the draft. Here’s the bottom line analysis from that film study:
Overall, Kelley had impressive enough tape i wasn’t exactly expecting to see. He controlled the offense well and simply put points on the board while showing good baseline traits across the board. A guy of his size has rarely had success in the NFL; Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler are recent failed examples, but Kelley’s game feels a bit more refined than “hefty dude with live arm.”
My comp for Kelley is someone a touch shorter simply because the list of QBs 6’6+ is so narrow. Nick Foles came in about 6’5 but was a big, sorta clumsy body type. Kelley is a slightly better athlete and a threat as a runner, but I can see him sticking in the league as a backup. And if he, like Foles, gets into a good system and gets hot, who knows what could happen…there’s something to work with here.