Welcome to the first in a series of articles profiling small-school NFL prospects and undervalued draft sleepers you may not be familiar with but who I follow extensively throughout the season and think you should know about.
As someone who’s tracked lesser-known prospects for 15+ years now, one thing I can tell you is not many draft analysts follow the lesser FBS conference teams, let alone FCS football and beyond. The “discovery” of a bunch of “unknown” prospects in the all-star games is an annual ritual where I feel like everyone is catching on to prospects I’ve had on a watchlist for months or even years. Just in the past week and a half, I have discussed FCS prospects with NFL names you would know, who admitted they had never seen a single play in game action from the player in question.
So, I’ll do my best to profile prospects who will be “rising up draft boards” between now and pro days, and who might be drafted on day 3, or sign as UDFAs. At worst, if you follow this column, you’ll recognize a name or two when you watch the USFL & XFL. These are my people.
QB Cole Kelley, Southeastern Louisiana via Arkansas (6972 248lb, 9 5/8 hand, 34 3/8” arm) is the perfect sort of prospect with which to begin.
Kelley was a 3/4 star recruit to Arkansas. He went there during perhaps the worst talent drain and worst coaching era they’ve ever had––the end of the crashing Bret Bielema era. As a true freshman, he stepped in when the first two QBs were hurt. He came on in relief to lead a terrific comeback vs Ole Miss from down 24-7.
Bear in mind, the surrounding talent was barren, so winning was hard. He pressed to do too much and was hot and cold. He got benched in his sophomore year by a new staff and his frustrations culminated in a DUI… film of which from the police car is of what sounds like an immature but sincere kid. He got suspended, re-instated, and then hit the transfer portal after the season. He said both to me and to others that he needed a fresh start and recognized that he needed to mature. A lot.
Enter SE Louisiana (“Hammond, America”, LA, near his hometown of Lafayette). Coach Frank Scelfo was an offensive assistant in the NFL for 3 years and he has put together a signature system, with lots of quality skill position targets in the passing game, a good OL… but the system depends on mental and physical QB play. Chason Virgil, the starter in 2019, was really good, so Cole got a few drives a game, then starts when Virgil was injured. He had some highlight reel work that season, including a meme-worthy, Marshawn-Lynch-vs-New-Orleans run while carrying the whole team downfield.
He became the full-time starter in the COVID-delayed Spring Season, which transformed SELA from a good offense to a transcendent offense and championship contending team. They lit up the Southland Conference, lit up everybody. Kelley had 7 rush touchdowns, 2 receiving TDs and 18 Passing TDs to 4 INT in 7 games played. He was awarded the FCS version of the Heisman, the Walter Payton Award.
In the fall of 2021––as their primary offensive weapon and main short-yardage/goal line rusher, he played even better. He had 16 rushing TDs in 13 games, to go with 44 TDs and only 10 INTs (at least two of which were drops that bounced to defenders). At one point this fall they were 27 for 30 scoring TDs in the Red Zone and the 3 non touchdowns were two dropped passes and a fumble.
HOW HE WINS:
The strengths of Kelley’s game are immediately evident. He has beyond ideal size, he has velocity as good as or better than any in the class on driving/intermediate throws, operates something approximating an NFL-style offense, is methodical and hard to stop in situational football/late-game situations, and is an impossible weapon as a short-yardage, power runner. He uses a variety of arm angles and off-platform work to get the job done, even on difficult throws—completed 73.6% of his passes this season, which is best among the 2022 draft class. He completed 74.2% last season and 68.9% the season before that.
His demonstrated ability to hang in the pocket and deliver throws is way above the NFL threshold. Teams may question his mobility––he’s a 4-wheel drive, ¾ ton pickup, not a Maserati––but his ability to move in and out of the pocket to evade rush and buy time is easy to see on tape.
THINGS TO WORK ON:
Ball security has been an issue––fumbles at inopportune times have been a bugaboo. He’s only thrown what I would call a bad Interception under pressure once or twice in his whole SELA career. Most of the few he’s had are more aggressive mistakes where he either believes he could get the ball in a window that wasn’t there or a miscommunication/misplay by the receiver. But the fumbles are more from lack of awareness of a player coming from behind, which, although correctable, can be a big problem in the NFL. He’s just been somewhat careless carrying the ball when rushing, which for a player of his size/strength shouldn’t be an issue. He had a late-game or critical turnover in at least 3-4 losses the past two seasons.
Although his ability to stand in the face of pressure and deliver the ball is a strength, he can also remain in the pocket too long and trust in his size to push defenders away. Sometimes that trust worked out but defenders began to grab the free arm he was using to make room, and that led to some avoidable sacks.
Lastly, his throwing mechanics can be inconsistent. He throws a pretty ball when it’s all working but probably has room to grow in terms of tightening his motion and transferring energy from his hips. He doesn’t have the compact motion of 2021 Will Levis/Dan Marino have/had nor the effortless motion of 2023 prospect Cameron Ward/Aaron Rodgers. Either would be tough with his size/long arms. I also don’t agree with some of the takes I’ve heard that Kelley has an overly long motion/release. I do think that unusually tall/long players are always tough to gauge; at times they look more awkward running/moving/throwing. I think he throws a bit like Peyton Manning (a QB of similar size/build), which worked out pretty well. He’s also got a bit of: I will throw it however I need to throw it to make it work, so his arm angles are different for different plays.
I have it from a team source he will be in the 4-6th Round range, but that’s if one of the QB-needy teams misses out in Round 1. My bet would be Round 7 or UDFA.
A Peyton Manning-style passer with more mobility in the pocket and who runs like prime Tim Tebow.
Is one of the more functional pro-style QBs available, with good size and a lively arm, so has early playing potential as a #2QB. Fit will matter a lot. But if he played for a higher-profile team, he’d be in the conversation for the 1st round.
For a team with a sophisticated passing game and solid protection he could be plug and play and thrive for several years. Or, since he’s from FCS and not a “modern NFL QB” as a runner with speed, he could go undrafted and never get a fair shot in the NFL.
Two nice throws to end the half for Cole Kelley in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl:
2020-21 Season FCS Walter Payton Award-winner
2021-22 Season FCS Walter Payton Award-runner up
2021 Southland Conference POY, 1st team All-Conference
2020 Southland Conference Offensive POY, 2nd team All-Conference
2x FCS Leader in numerous categories, including passing yards, combined scoring, & efficiency rating
MVP of 2022 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl