Ryan Kelly.jpg (copy)

Colts center Ryan Kelly looks over the defense Dec. 22 against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan Kelly might be underrated no more.

The Indianapolis Colts center was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time Thursday, replacing Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who will not compete because of injury.

It will be the first career all-star appearance for Kelly, who just finished his fourth season in the NFL and started all 16 games for the first time since his rookie year of 2016.

Kelly joins left guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard on the AFC roster for the Pro Bowl. The Colts will have two offensive linemen represented in the annual all-star game for the first time since 2006 when left tackle Tarik Glenn and center Jeff Saturday were participants.

Former Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck called Kelly one of the league’s most under rated players in 2018, and head coach Frank Reich was asked late during the 2019 regular season where he believes the 26-year-old Ohio native ranks among the NFL’s elite centers.

“He is in the middle of that conversation in my mind,” Reich said. “There is no doubt about it. He is one of the best in the league. It is hard to imagine — I don’t study all the guys in the league, (and) obviously I am very subjective, but he is as good as there is in my mind.

“He can run block. He can pass block. He has elite football intelligence. He is tough. He’s got alpha male leadership qualities to him. Man, he is everything you want in the center of your team. I mean everything you want. The guy is the best in the business as far as I am concerned.”

Kelly was a starter from Day 1 after being selected with the 18th overall pick out of Alabama, but injuries have periodically taken him off the national radar.

He suffered a broken foot in the 2017 preseason and appeared in just seven games. In 2018, a neck injury cost him four weeks during a season that otherwise ranked as one of the finest of his career.

This season, he helped Indianapolis post the league’s seventh-most productive rushing offense, a run that included a 264-yard game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 11. That was the 12th-highest single-game rushing total in franchise history and the most for the Colts since a 275-yard game against the Chicago Bears in 2004.

Kelly is often praised for his athleticism, which allows him to quickly get to the second level and make blocks downfield in the running game. But he also carries a superior football IQ.

His ability to read defenses and call coverages in tandem with quarterback Jacoby Brissett is credited with helping Indianapolis surrender the ninth-fewest sacks in the NFL (32) in 2019.

Kelly is entering the final year of his rookie deal and is scheduled to become a free agent in March 2021. Though general manager Chris Ballard is customarily holding his cards close to the vest, Kelly seems to be a likely candidate for an offseason contract extension.

“Really proud of Ryan Kelly,” Ballard said during his season-ending press conference last week. “16 weeks (as a starter), fought through (injuries), tremendous leader. (He) is really starting to understand about the (offensive line) group, bringing the group together, being the leader of the o-line. (It’s) fun to watch his growth.”

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