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2018 NFL Draft prospect profile: John Kelly, RB, Tennessee

John Kelly might be the toughest, angriest runner in this draft class

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Every year there are college players who surprise by declaring for the NFL Draft. Young players who leave early for the NFL despite development concerns or limited production.

One such player is Tennessee’s John Kelly, who only just emerged as a starting running back in 2017 after the departure of Alvin Kamara in 2017’s draft. Kelly had fewer than 330 carries in three seasons before declaring for the draft, and scouts simply weren’t expecting him to declare.

He enters a stacked running back class, but Kelly’s play on the field is intriguing to say the least.



  • Very athletic back. Fast and agile, Kelly seems to play the game at a different speed than everyone else.
  • Runs angry. Kelly is unafraid as a blocker or to finish behind his pads, frequently uses a good stiff arm and refuses to go down.
  • Reliable receiver out of the backfield.
  • Shows good vision to identify holes in zone runs.
  • Fantastic balance through contact. Seems to be able to run through everything but a solid form tackle.
  • Great change of direction skills.


  • Undersized back. Durability may be a concern at the next level.
  • Inexperienced. Only has more than 100 carries in one year (junior). Only 138 carries in freshman and sophomore years combined.
  • Off-field concerns, was arrested for (misdemeanor) marijuana possession.

Prospect video

What they’re saying

COMPARES TO: Devonta Freeman, Falcons - Kelly would be fortunate to be drafted into as ideal of a situation as the similarly built (5-08, 206) and skilled Freeman has with an MVP at quarterback, one of the league’s elite pass-catchers forcing defenses to respect the passing game and a speed back to complement him. Like Freeman (who was clocked at “just” 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash prior to being a fourth round pick in 2014, Kelly is a natural runner with vision, grit and soft hands to become a focal point of an NFL offense, despite less-than-ideal girth and straight-line speed.”

- Rob Rang (NFLDraftScout)

Final thoughts

Kelly was a surprise entrant into the 2018 NFL Draft, but Tennessee’s loss will be the NFL’s gain. Because Tennessee is in a down period and he was hidden behind Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, Kelly hasn’t gotten much exposure on the national stage. That is going to change as the draft process wears on.

Given a glimmer of daylight, Kelly is an absolutely electric running back. He appears fearless as both a ball carrier and a blocker, willing to throw his compact, muscular frame around. Kelly isn’t a “big” back, but there is more than a bit of “Beast Mode” in his running, as he refuses to be tackled, and he consistently fights for every yard he can get.

He is a natural fit in a zone scheme, able to run inside or outside, with good vision to pick out cutback lanes and more than enough agility to hit them. Kelly puts his 5-foot-9 frame to good use, frequently hiding behind offensive linemen, and then dropping his hips to either absorb contact or explode out of a cut. Once in the open field he is able to turn on the jets and break off big gains, while also being aware enough to vary his stride length to throw off defenders’ pursuit angles. His ability as a receiver and as a blocker (even if his size can get him overwhelmed when squaring up on a defender) give him true “three down” versatility.

The league will want to take a look at Kelly’s off-field character, as he was arrested for marijuana possesion in 2017, after some was found in his car during a traffic stop. It was a misdemeanor offense, but the NFL will still investigate.

If the Giants want to add another running back to complement Wayne Gallman and Paul Perkins, and do indeed switch to an outside zone system, Kelly would be a natural fit and could be the electric presence they’ve missed since David Wilson’s career-ending injury.