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How Chad Kelly went from Mr. Irrelevant to unlikely, promising Broncos backup

Chad Kelly is dominating the Broncos’ backup quarterback battle against a player who went six rounds earlier than him in the NFL Draft.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The last pick of the NFL Draft is better known as Mr. Irrelevant, and players who have earned the honor over the years are typically exactly that: irrelevant.

Among the few who made an impact despite being the last player picked are kicker Ryan Succop, who is entering his 10th NFL season, and David Vobora, a linebacker who briefly started for the Rams before his career fizzled.

For now, the 2017 Mr. Irrelevant, Chad Kelly, hasn’t stepped out into relevancy. He missed his entire rookie year due to wrist surgery and still hasn’t suited up for a regular season game with the Denver Broncos.

But his surprisingly impressive preseason run so far has made him a lock for the No. 2 job behind Case Keenum and an unlikely success story for a team that hasn’t had much quarterback luck.

Kelly has cruised past Paxton Lynch for the backup job

One year before the Broncos took a flyer on the nephew of Buffalo Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, the team invested in Lynch as the team’s quarterback of the future.

Lynch joined a roster with Trevor Siemian and Mark Sanchez, but never captured the job — making just four starts over the last two years, despite lackluster performances by the players ahead of him on the depth chart. He has four career touchdown passes with four interceptions.

But even after unimpressive showings in his first two seasons, Lynch was still the presumptive backup for free agent acquisition, Case Keenum. The fact that he has been thoroughly outclassed in two preseason games by a seventh-round pick is surprising to most. Not everyone has been shocked, though.

“I had a feeling he was going to play well,” Broncos general manager John Elway said at training camp last week after the preseason opener. “He’s a competitive guy, he’s played a lot of snaps, and he’s instinctive. He took advantage of the opportunity that he had. He was looking forward to going out and playing and chomping at the bit. It did not surprise me, the way Chad played. He played very well. He’s got good instincts. He deserved the chance to play with the twos this week.”

In his second preseason game, Kelly played with the second-team Broncos offense and performed even better than in his first showing. He finished the game with seven completions on nine attempts against the Bears secondary with 90 yards and a touchdown pass.

Lynch finished the game by completing five of his 11 passes for 39 yards while the Bears came back to secure a 24-23 win. It left little doubt that the backup job is Kelly’s, and that Lynch isn’t likely to stick on the roster much longer.

But maybe Kelly’s success shouldn’t have been so surprising

Not all Mr. Irrelevant’s are the same. The late rounds of the NFL Draft are littered with players who have maxed out their limited skillset, dealt with injuries in college, have off-field concerns, or are an underdeveloped talent with years of growing ahead of them.

No matter who the pick is in the final round, there’s a reason they didn’t land in the first couple days.

In the case of Kelly, talent was never much of an issue. While he isn’t the 6’7 skyscraper that Lynch is, Kelly has always had a world-class arm.

“He can rip that thing,” Broncos tight end Jake Butt said in May, via ESPN. “You definitely have to wear gloves because he’ll be spinning that bad boy pretty tough.”

Kelly’s tumble to the very bottom of the 2017 draft class was a combination of off-field concerns, injuries, and inconsistent mechanics. He was dismissed from Clemson in 2014 and then arrested later in the year, shortly after getting a second chance from Ole Miss.

He earned the trust of Ole Miss coaches and eventually won the starting job, but his senior season ended early due to an ACL tear. Further hurting his draft stock was a wrist injury suffered at the Ole Miss pro day that required surgery. It was as rough a pre-draft process as you’ll ever see.

It also didn’t help that, for all his arm talent, Kelly had a bad habit of throwing off-balance and hurling footballs into traffic. So on draft day, Kelly had a long wait to hear the phone ring.

But he landed in Denver, and after redshirting for a year due to his wrist injury, he’s showing why he got so many chances in the first place.

The best case scenario for the Broncos is that Keenum plays a full, 16-game season at the same level that helped the Vikings get to the NFC Championship a year ago. But for the first time in a while, Denver also has a young quarterback draft pick to feel optimistic about.