As the silly season of mock drafts and GM-speak ratchets up to full gear, it's easy to lose sight of the second and third columns of the depth charts. There's been plenty of chatter about the Broncos potentially drafting Von Miller out of Texas A&M to upgrade their linebacker corps. But for today, let's hop off the rumor/speculation carousel and focus on what Denver actually has in terms of young linebacking talent: Braxton Kelley.
Kelley was introduced to the Broncos as an undersized 6’0”, 226 lb. college free agent in 2009, a player many of us had hoped would turn out to be another Wesley Woodyard. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad and under strength and conditioning coach Rich Tuten’s constant tutelage (along with Tuten’s assistants, Greg Saporta and Justin Lovett). Kelley suffered an injury in June of 2010 and was placed on IR, but he's stayed with his training while recovering from his injury and has emerged from the experience as a 242-lb middle linebacker on a team that is in dire need of faster linebackers and talented depth. Kelley’s 40 time leading up to the 2009 Draft was 4.74, with a peak time of 4.65 - he was hardly a burner, but his speed was more than functional since he has an explosive first step and takes great angles to the ball. He was in a classic situation: a player who played much faster on the field than he timed in a straight line 40.
Aside from his late increase in weight, there was another reason for Denver to retain him: his background. During his stint at Kentucky, he was a four-year starter who totaled 287 tackles (175 solo), 6.5 sacks (30 yds), four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and six pass breakups in 46 career games (42 starts) as well as earning Kentucky’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award after registering a team and career-high 98 tackles (49 solo), four sacks (21 yds), two pass breakups and two forced fumbles as a 13-game starter his senior year. As Denver changes its approach to the linebacking corps, it’s good to see him back, at a better weight for his frame and ready for the 2011 season.
Sports Illustrated described him as an “...explosive linebacker who flies around the field trying to make positive plays. Plays sideline-to-sideline, covers a good amount of area on the field and displays a good degree of quickness in his game. Works hard to make plays, fast to the flanks and a solid athlete. Fires up the field in run defense and does a nice job diagnosing plays. Possesses a burst of speed and flashes on the scene.” He was barely 226 lb when that was written, and 230 at draft time.
Since he was never considered very fast, there will be a question of whether he has kept whatever speed he had or even lost some of it at his new weight, but given the way he played at Kentucky he’s become an option for middle linebacker that Broncos fans generally don’t know much about. Under contract for 2011 and an exclusive rights free agent after that, there’s little doubt that Denver has at least some faith in the young man. It’s also worth recognizing that while he was a four-year starter in college, he also improved each year in terms of his technique. After his senior year he was named second-team All-Southeastern Conference by Phil Steele’s College Football, and he capped his college career by being named the Most Outstanding Defensive Player in UK’s 25-19 victory over East Carolina in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, with a team-high eight tackles, including two for loss and a quarterback sack.
As you’d expect, Kelley is a young man, only 24 years of age, born on October 24, 1986 to William and Veronica Kelley. Like many potential NFL players, he was already on course to excel in football when he attended LaGrange High School, earning all-Georgia honors from the Atlanta Constitution while he was there. At LaGrange, he was a teammate of current Broncos special teams captain Wesley Woodyard. Kelley was a four-year letterman and a three-year starter who mostly played defensive end, with some reps at linebacker.
He was also coached in HS by Steve Pardue. Coach Pardue once said of him, "Braxton plays every play like it is his last play. He plays hard every single snap. He's one of the best I've ever coached. I think Kentucky got a steal in Braxton Kelley." It’s what you want to hear about a player - some are talented and some are marginal, but every team needs to have a heavy share of guys who just like to play football, and who like being there and who play it snap to snap, as well as putting in their long hours in the film room and the weight room. I don’t know as much about his film room work, but one look at him tells you about the weight room.
He was also a two-year letterman in basketball and a three-year letterman in track and field as a discus thrower, so this is a serious athlete. Braxton placed third in the region in that event as a junior. Kelley hit the books as hard as he did running backs, and was an honor roll student. Chased by three schools, he eventually chose Kentucky over Virginia Tech and South Carolina, choosing to follow his teammate Woodyard to Kentucky. Unlike many football players who go with simpler majors to increase their football time or just to get through, Kelley chose to major in kinesiology - not the choice of a guy who is just getting through college on his football skills.
When I talk about the athlete’s choice of major, I’m often reminded of new HOFer Shannon Sharpe. He wasn’t classroom-smart - he's often said that "I didn’t graduate cum laude. I did 'Thank You, Lordy!'" It didn’t seem to hurt his performance on the field. When it comes up, I mention it for two reasons - one is that the game is getting increasingly cerebral, and smart young men often - not always - pick up schemes faster. The other is just to give the man his proper due - that’s an intense area of study, and it takes a lot to master it. He managed to do that while excelling on the gridiron - more power to him.
He didn’t just follow Woodyard to Kentucky: they were teammates and friends. Kelley hit the SEC with the force of a blindside tackle when he arrived at Kentucky, earning SEC All-American honors during his freshman year. He was also named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2005, totaling 44 tackles (35 solo) and one sack (1 yd) in just seven games (all starts) that year. All in all, these were his awards for just his freshman campaign:
- Freshman All-America (second team) by Rivals.com
- Freshman All-America (third team) by The Sporting News
- Freshman All-America (honorable mention) by Scout.com
- SEC All-Freshman Team by SEC coaches, The Sporting News
- UK Most Outstanding First-Year Player by UK coaches
While in college, Kelley also became involved in supporting his community by joining the group Community Cats. Through it, he served as a mentor for a student at Johnson Elementary School in 2006. He also participated in events with the Boy Scouts and UK Children's Hospital in 2008. With his physical ability, intellect and outreach to the community, finding out how to maximize his physical training was all that was left. Given his current weight and strength, that seems to have matured. The result has drawn the FO’s interest.
Considering that Denver got him as a CFA (like Woodyard), they may now have gotten a second bargain out of Kentucky. Kelley had started 29 games at middle linebacker before moving over to weakside linebacker during his senior year. The move was made with his upcoming NFL career in mind: few 220-pound middle linebackers (as he was then) make the pros. Braxton struggled with the transition during the spring, but was comfortable and highly effective there over his senior season. His size was a major concern for many NFL teams, just as it had been for Wesley Woodyard.
Woodyard, it should be noted, was a captain by his second season in the league: he was clearly a rare competitor from the first time he hit the practice field, and caught fan and team attention in his initial training camp. Kelley’s situation was more difficult: Denver had moved on to bigger, Bullough 3-4/52 linebackers: men who are half defensive end. Kelley is still working on competing for a job, but with the change from the Broncos wanting 265-lb linebackers to those who are smaller, faster and highly disruptive, Kelley is at least two out of those three, and his short-area quickness, smooth lateral movement and the way that he hits when he tackles along with his background at Mike should serve him well, especially since Denver lacks a true MLB at this point in time. At the very least, he’ll push whomever Denver brings in to compete for the position and he may back it up. Will potential Mike D.J. Williams be too expensive for his production? To me, he is. The Denver FO has to field a team, though.
Kelley had two substantial weaknesses to his game when he reached the NFL. He had struggled to disengage from blocks, lacking the size and physical strength to use his hands properly, although he was a demonic tackler. He also struggled at times in coverage, and his draft profiles mentioned that consistently. It’s a tough part of the game for many of the LBs who don’t get the proper training in it during college, due to time constraints or scheme specifics. Some players just don’t have the knack. From the way some of his scouting reports read, it seemed that he just hadn’t had the responsibility enough. They seemed more wary of how he’d do than disapproving of what he’d done.
Denver’s decision to move back to a 4-3 defense and to emphasize disruption and speed while using smaller linebackers will require those players to be willing and able to hit, hit hard, wrap up and get back up eager to do it again. From everything that I’ve been able to find, Kelley fits that mold very well. I found quite a few Kentucky clips online, and the thing that stood out to me was how well he moved, keeping his pad level low and shooting across the turf, but launching himself into a tackle. His short-area and lateral quickness are unmistakable. Those who are interested can follow him on Facebook. You’ll also find a few YouTube clips starting here. By the way, that #16 you’ll see on a play or two is our own Wes Woodyard. An interview with Kelley is also worth watching to get a little more of a feel for the man.
Whenever the powers that be decide to give the fans back their real football time, Braxton’s going to be ready, waiting, and psyched to be fighting for a shot at becoming a special teamer or even a Mike LB for a remade Denver team. I wish him the all best - I’ve enjoyed him since he was at Kentucky.