Champ Kelly may have come up short in the Broncos' general manager search, as George Paton was hired Wednesday. But Kelly could still find his way to Denver this offseason.
Kelly was one of the leading candidates for the GM job, spending the last six seasons in the Bears' front office, most recently as the assistant director of player personnel. While he didn't land the job, Kelly could be a candidate to replace Matt Russell, who was the vice president of player personnel and who announced his retirement on Jan. 4. Russell was John Elway's right-hand man as general manager before he moved to an elevated position as president of football operations.
The leading candidate for Russell's job is likely Vikings director of college scouting Jamaal Stephenson who worked with Paton in Minnesota, according to The Denver Post. But Kelly, who spent eight seasons in Denver (2007-2014), will probably be considered for a role with the Broncos as Paton evaluates his personnel staff. And many former players would certainly be in favor of this, as he was one of the most personable executives during his time in Denver.
"He fitted in with the guys," said Eddie Royal, who played wide receiver for the Broncos from 2008-2011. "He was that guy you felt like you could be yourself around him. You could relax when you were with him."
Royal was one of the Broncos closest with Kelly and remembers when the two first met — one of the first days of training camp his rookie year.
Royal thought Kelly was a coach.
"He was just always there, giving me these little tips about whether I was giving a route away or whether I didn't get out of a break quick enough — it was always constructive criticism," Royal said. "It was weird because as a young player you don't really know who's who or what position somebody holds. It's just a bunch of people out there watching practice, so I had no idea what role he had in the front office or if he was even in the front office — the way it seemed, it was like he was another coach out there.
"That's kind of rare. Those guys they kind of walk around practice, but they don't really talk much. They don't really say anything to the players. He was so outspoken about things that he saw."
At the time, Kelly was only in his second season working in the NFL as the Broncos' assistant coordinator of pro and college scouting. It was three years earlier that he was working for the Kentucky Horseman, an indoor football team, as their general manager and wide receivers coach.
A wide receiver and defensive back from the University of Kentucky from 1998-2001, Kelly has been known to connect with players — especially young players — like few other executives around the NFL. His experience playing in college and working in a league full of players who wanted to make it to the NFL, makes Kelly someone who players admire.
"He was one of those guys who just loved ball," Royal said. "He was always talking about it, very passionate about it. I just wanted to take everything I could from him because he had such a wealth of knowledge of not only defensive backs and wide receivers, but the game in general. It was a unique and genuine friendship. I could tell he was being truthful with me and I think that's hard to find in those positions because a lot of times — you're not lying, but you're not telling the whole truth. And guys can tell that.
"But Champ has always been a guy to tell you the truth, whether you're getting the job done or you weren't, and I really respected that about him."
Royal isn't the only former Bronco who advocated for Kelly to be the GM, with former cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib both saying they wanted to see him get the job.
But Denver got its man in Paton, the frontrunner from the start. Still, the Broncos and Kelly would likely be open to a reunion.
"I think Champ being back in Denver would be great for the organization," Royal said. "He's a guy you can rely on and knowing him, I think he'd love to be back with the Broncos."