Matt Waldman shares his NFL Draft scouting report on Los Angeles Chargers rookie Joshua Kelley from his 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication.
Joshua Kelley, UCLA (5-10, 212)
Depth of Talent Score: 81.8 = Rotational Starter: Executes at a starter level in a role that plays to their strengths.
Kelley is one of the most underrated skill prospects in the draft. A two-year starter at UCLA, Kelley worked his way into the role from the junior college circuit. After watching Kelley last summer, I thought he’d have more buzz by season’s end but it never materialized.
Even after a strong week at the Senior Bowl where he earned 100 yards in the game, Kelley seemed like an afterthought in this talented running back class. In fact, I heard NFL.com’s Peter Schrager mention Kelley as one of his sleepers—comparing Kelley’s anonymity to a potential Priest Holmes storyline that could eventually unfold for Kelley in the NFL once he signs with a team. To be clear, Schrager isn’t comparing Kelley’s style with Holmes.
Kelley has elite acceleration like Holmes (4.28-second, 20 Shuttle to Holmes’s 4.19-second, mark) but Kelley is bigger, faster, and has greater short-area quickness. It also appears that Kelley could add additional muscle to his frame.
I’ve had a difficult time unearthing a stylistic comparison for Kelley. After watching numerous players from the past and recent present, Kelley’s closest comp in terms of current talent is Johnathan Franklin—another UCLA back with good speed and acceleration whose game was based on smart decisions and efficient cuts.
However, the back that I can’t get out of my mind whenever I watch Kelley is Terrell Davis. There’s a lot about Kelley’s game that leads me to believe his development arrow as an athlete is still pointing up. He’s the kind of talent who could start and produce for an NFL team now, and then take it to another level as he continues developing his physical profile.
Kelley played in a UCLA offense that often used 2-3 tight ends and encouraged dense boxes. Kelley’s film illustrates that he knew his pre-snap and post-snap keys for the plays he ran—various gap and zone plays as well as duo, and pin-and-pull sweeps—and he could read multiple events as he took the exchange from his quarterback.
A patient runner, Kelley presses into his offensive line to set up his primary crease or the bounce or cutback. He’ll change the length of his stride to time his blocks and attack the crease hard with a notable burst.
When the crease is small, Kelley gets skinny through the hole, and he can do these even after avoiding penetration into the backfield. Kelley routinely ran through contact behind the line of scrimmage or at the entrance to the hole and could still reaccelerate downhill or cut back for positive yards in what appeared to be a losing situation.
When Kelley runs plays to the edge, he’s patient to the corner and baits pursuit with a dip, head-fake, or shoulder fake to sell the cutback before proceeding outside. Kelley also baits opponents with changes to his pace and that alteration of the rhythm as the play unfolds can generate additional separation when Kelley accelerates into open space.
He’s a skilled cutback runner who also finds the second cut as he exits the original hole on interior runs, and it’s this second cut that generates big plays. The only issue with Kelley’s decision-making is that when he has success with a cutback, he’ll try it again too soon and the defense is ready for it. When Kelley figures out how to successfully keep opponents guessing as the game unfolds, he’ll be even more dangerous because he’s already a disciplined and instinctive runner.
For a player with elite change-of-direction quickness, Kelley doesn’t incorporate a lot of jump-cuts and jump-stops into his game. He’s an economical runner who can open his hips fast and execute sharp turns with a minimum of steps or space covered.
Kelley prefers to dip away from pursuit and use hard sticks and pressure cuts. This works well for him and it’s something you see a lot from Terrell Davis’s game when reviewing his highlights.
Both players share the philosophy that it’s best to continue moving forward at as fast of a pace as possible and it means using moves that avoid contact without breaking stride. Kelley’s acceleration is strong enough that he easily beats linebackers into the open field and it takes 40-50 yards for defensive backs to make up ground if they lacked a favorable pursuit angle early in the run.
Kelley has the speed and acceleration to win the short or long corners on perimeter runs. When transitioning downhill as he turns the corner on these perimeter runs, Kelley can make the move with one prep step. This is starter-caliber transitioning and fits within his and Davis’s profile as backs that can get downhill efficiently and maintain a competitive rate of speed.
Davis entered the league at a weight ranging between 190-195 pounds. You’ll see some sites retroactively list Davis’s weight as 210-215 pounds—especially on NFL Combine record sites that came along well after Davis’s workouts—but this isn’t accurate. Davis added muscle as his NFL career progresses.
Kelley is already in this weight range that took Davis work to reach and based on his body type, I bet he can add another 5-10 pounds of muscle to his core. This could make Kelley even more explosive and powerful.
He’s already big enough to push piles between the tackles for 3-4 yards while opponents are wrapping him and none of his teammates have yet rallied to his aid. He can take indirect contact from defensive ends and outside linebackers in the hole and drag the big men 2-3 yards.
If a middle linebacker can’t back up his reach or wrap with a hit, Kelley can run through that contact as well. Kelley finishes with pad level to work under larger defenders and split a pair of similar-sized or smaller opponents for extra yardage. Kelly bounces off contact from defensive backs, linebackers, and defensive tackles.
Even when he lacks any downhill momentum, Kelley has stalemated linebackers getting hits on him in the backfield. When he has momentum, he’ll push through head-on contact from linebackers and earn positive yards. Kelley will punish defensive backs at the end of creases or up the sideline, dropping his pads and running them over.
Against defensive tackles, Kelley can stalemate direct contact, but it will be an exceptional circumstance if he wins this type of interaction. When dealing with contact and traffic, Kelley protects the ball with both arms at the end of runs or at least employs a high-and-tight carriage.
He uses the correct arm based on the pursuit of the most dangerous defender in the area. While his elbow can come loose from his frame in the open field, he’s conscientious about tightening that elbow as he reaches traffic.
A graceful pass catcher, Kelley tracks the ball over his head, over his shoulder, and away from his frame. He plucks the ball after making full extensions of his arms while on the run. He also demonstrates the same facility with low targets.
Kelley, like Eno Benjamin, transitions his body downhill during the catch so he accelerates into open space without any hesitation. Based on the way he tracks the ball and his athletic traits, he has additional upside as a route runner and vertical option beyond the conventional check-down routes that most running backs earn.
Kelley has some technique issues as a pass protector that could hold him back from extensive playing time as a rookie if he doesn’t address them immediately, but he also has success facing all three levels of defenders in specific situations so his acclimation might be quicker than the typical conservative expectation of a year.
Kelley can help right away with chips as he exits into a route. Although the easiest of the assignments, many backs fail this task to one extreme or the other—too violent a hit and knocks the opponent free of the primary blocker into an open lane towards the quarterback or not violent enough and the defender gains the edge and earns pressure that could have been stopped. Kelley delivers just enough violence to have an impact but not so much that he ruins his teammate’s position.
He’s capable of picking up interior blitzes. He’ll slide across his quarterback’s face, square the gap, and deliver the first contact to the blitzing linebacker or safety. He uses an uppercut punch with enough force to stop the defender in his tracks. When asked to work the edge of the pocket, Kelley can earn position and shield edge rushers. When playing well, he can punch and move laterally around the arc of the pocket to funnel the defender away from the quarterback.
However, he has too many lapses in technique where he drops his head into contact with these assignments and loses the leverage battle quickly. He catches contact from defensive ends when taking them on one-on-one and if he has to slow these edge rushers for more than a beat,
Kelley’s protection game falls apart fast. Kelley struggles with angles of approach as a cut blocker. It’s unusual for a runner to be a better stand-up blocker than cut blocker, but this is Kelley’s story. In the open field, Kelley transitions fast from receiver to blocker and he’ll work chest-to-chest against his opponent and move linebackers and safeties away from the play.
Although Kelley’s Depth of Talent grade is closer to the Contributor Tier than it is the Immediate Starter Tier, the areas he needs to address to improve his game to starter standards are not difficult tasks. He’s a legitimate talent that the general public is sleeping on.
If Benjamin is the back I felt like I graded too low on this list, Kelley has the skills to be the surprise starter of this class. His appearance at No.9 begins a run of eight players with the skills and potential to outplay their likely draft capital. Kelley and the next four below him have upside that could match some of the top-five talents on the board.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: I’m betting Kelley has a pre-NFL Draft fantasy ADP between rounds 3-5. I’m also betting Kelley doesn’t get picked anywhere before the fourth round and more likely rounds 5-7, which could further depress his ADP.
If this is the case, take advantage. Kelley has enough scheme-versatility to work his way into playing time in any backfield situation that doesn’t have an elite feature back in the lead role.
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