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Could Sean Payton fall in love with Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly?

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The best senior passer in the country is talented, but already polarizing the scouting community. Can Sean Payton overlook his flaws to find the potential?

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Can Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly someday lead Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl victory?

I know, it seems like a wild proposition to make. Chad Kelly is only in his second year as a high-profile passer in the Southeastern Conference, but he’s already a polarizing figure. He’s thrown for 41 touchdowns but 17 interceptions in only 16 games.

Kelly runs one of the nation’s fastest-paced offenses with great efficiency, completing 64.6 percent of his passes at almost 9 yards per completion, but his track record off the field gives talent evaluators pause.

Some analysts draw comparisons between Kelly and Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, while others think Kelly’s career arc may more-closely resemble Jay Cutler. The most pessimistic takes link Kelly to Rex Grossman.

In any case, the general consensus is that Kelly is an NFL talent who will get drafted to play at the game’s highest level.

Before mocking Kelly to the Saints like it’s a done deal, let’s consider who the guy is and what we can offer.

Chad Kelly is a senior at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) who will turn 23 a few weeks before next year’s draft. Originally committed to Clemson, Kelly took a redshirt his freshman year and was dismissed from the team the following year after openly arguing with the coaching staff and a violent off-field incident including a bar fight and resisting arrest.

In the two years since, Kelly has worked to renovate his public image. His biography on Ole Miss’ official team site lists him as a member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll and volunteer on mission trips to Haiti with teammates.

Kelly struggled to stay in head coach Hugh Freeze’s good graces early in 2015, at times stalking off the field after turning the ball over, but since then he’s spent a lot of time on the headset conferring with Freeze and the team’s offensive coaching staff during games.

The jury’s still out on whether Kelly has the character to succeed in the NFL. But from a skills perspective, it’s easy to see why New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton may covet him.

Ole Miss’ offense is one of the fastest-paced in the SEC, running 72 plays per game. It largely relies on the Read-Pass-Option, which gives them flexibility to run different plays out of the same formation with the same personnel. That dimension could be a breath of fresh air for a Saints offense that has recently stalled out against some of the game’s better defenses.

Payton has tried working in more option plays, but it hasn’t worked well with an older, less-athletic quarterback in Drew Brees. Kelly is 15 years younger and has better size, being listed on the team’s roster at 6-foot-2, 224-pounds. Kelly has run 136 times during his Ole Miss career for 585 yards and 10 touchdowns, and has shown enough athleticism to think some of that production could transfer to the NFL.

Kelly has some great values from a mechanical perspective. Most notably he has an incredibly quick release and great feel for ball placement on deep passes. He doesn’t need to put much effort into his throws and can easily put the ball on any part of the field. That certainly appeals to Sean Payton, who likes to attack all three levels at a variety of different angles.

A problem Kelly does have is the frequency his passes are batted down at the line of scrimmage. His release is lower than you’d like from a quarterback, so if he can learn to launch the ball sooner – and higher – in his throwing arc that issue could be minimized.

A side effect of having such a big arm is that footwork can get lazy. Kelly has a similar bad habit to Philadelphia Eagles rookie Carson Wentz; both young passers tend to keep their feet flat to the ground, which limits their pocket mobility and how much torque they can put into the throw.

Kelly has been slow to evade pressure at times, which has turned into unnecessary hits, sacks, and knockdowns after the throw. He’s always gotten up from those tough hits and gone right back into the line of fire, but Kelly has made his job hardy than it should be by being slow to react to pressure off of slow feet. Keeping his feet active is a fundamental skill that Kelly’s coaches at the pro level will have to develop.

So what’s the verdict on Chad Kelly’s prospects with the New Orleans Saints? The team may have thrown in the towel on 2015 draft pick Garrett Grayson, having demoted him to the practice squad after he failed to show improvement between his first and second seasons. If so, they’ll be in the market for another young signal-caller to groom behind Drew Brees, who is only signed through March 2018.

Kelly comes with experience in a rhythmic, up-tempo offense that relies on snaps largely from the shotgun with some plays under-center. He’s got a great arm, ideal size, and a lightning-quick throwing motion. But he lacks polish and can make poor decisions with the football. His pendulum swings from “brilliant” to “wait, why?” almost as frequently as Brett Favre’s once did.

With an extensive history of off-field drama and distractions, drafting Kelly would run against the pattern of football-first attitudes that Payton has injected into this New Orleans Saints locker room. Kelly looks exactly like the type of player you would have to worry about, “where is he at 3 AM?”

We’ll get a better feel for how Kelly fits the Saints’ vision of the future in the coming months. They’ve already begun scouting the Ole Miss quarterback live, with general manager Mickey Loomis observing practices daily during the lead-up to the 2015 Sugar Bowl.

Saints scouts have already been credentialed to attend two of Ole Miss’ games this season (the season-opener versus Florida State and the SEC West grudge match against Alabama).

There’s still a lot of football to play and opportunities for Kelly to impress, like a week of Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Alabama (he’s one of several Ole Miss players on Phil Savage’s Senior Bowl Watch List) in front of the entire NFL community. Kelly has his team and coaching staff behind him, and wouldn’t be the first quarterback to vault up draft boards with a stellar draft season.

The good news is that’s exactly what Derek Carr did before joining the Oakland Raiders as a second round pick. The trouble is that was also said of Johnny Manziel before he became a first round bust for the Cleveland Browns. Chad Kelly still has time to write his own story.