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Decoding Chip Kelly's NFL Combine comments

Chip Kelly spoke for a full hour to beat writers in Indianapolis. Reading between the lines, here's what he revealed.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Chip Kelly was one of nine NFL coaches not scheduled to speak in at the Combine, but after several articles slamming him for his absence, he spoke to a gaggle of beat reporters in Indy for about an hour.

You've probably read multiple articles reporting some of his comments: he looks forward to working with Kaep, likes all his players and coaches, etc. The session was closed, but I've reconstructed it from a variety of reports. The quotes below are from articles by Taylor PriceMatt MaioccoMatt Barrows, Maiocco again, Eric Branch 1 and 2Cam Inman, and Maiocco, respectively. They all include plenty of detail, so give them a read.

Some of his answers make more sense with a little context, though. At his introductory press conference back in January, for example, Kelly kept talking about how he (and Trent Baalke) were "football guys," repeating the phrase over and over.

It helps to know that he had just been fired after a bureaucratic battle with Philly's ex-GM Howie Roseman, who was decidedly NOT a football guy (Howie's a trained lawyer and spreadsheet expert.). Their battle got serious a year earlier when Roseman fired Tom Gamble, a true football guy who's now the Niner's "Senior Personnel Executive." So there was a reason Chip said "football guy" a couple of hundred times.

Here's some background on his Combine comments that might not be obvious at first.

"There's some really sharp football guys in the [Niner's front office on the] personnel side."

Like I was saying.... (I wonder though. Is Paraag on the personnel side?)

"I know that [Kaepernick's] injured. People forget about that. He had a shoulder, a thumb and a knee that are legitimate. He’s the only guy I know who went on IR and everybody forgot he was injured."

Chip doesn't like to talk about injuries, so as not to give opponents any leg up in game planning that might take advantage of holes in the roster. He's also just very private about his own (and his players) personal information.

In Philadelphia, he scheduled his Monday meeting with team doctors immediately after his day-after-game press conference so that he could truthfully say "I haven't talked to Dr. DeLuca yet, I'll find out more later today." When he does describe an injury, he just names the body part, as he did above in discussing Kaepernick's health.

That's how he describes injuries: "he has a knee." It doesn't mean that the player possesses one (or even two) knees, smarty pants. It's shorthand for "he has an injury to one of his knees and I'm not even going to tell you which one unless I have to."

If he's asked when a player will return, Chip always says that it's up to the doctors. Whenever the doctors clear him, he'll be back. Kelly doesn't get involved or even ask for details (he claims).

"We believe long levers are strong levers... That’s a key component depending on what position you are. Even if it’s receiver. What’s your catch radius? Is he a short-armed guy, or is he a long-armed guy? ... At one point, I think our (Oregon) football team rivaled our basketball team walking on campus."

Size matters for Chip, and not just height and weight (but those too). He looks closely at arm length, hand size (for skill players), and ankle, wrist and knee circumference (which help determine how much weight a lineman could effectively carry). Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated reported (based on a rare inside source) that Chip wants defensive ends to be at least 6'6" and his nose tackles to have knees that are at least 18" around, to show less susceptibility to injury.

Oversize players don't always work out, but Chip has given a full chance to several huge players. At Oregon, it was Arik Armstead (6'8"), DeForest Buckner (6'7") and Dion Jordan (a mere 6'6"). In Philly, he drafted 6'9" DE Brian Mihalik and signed war hero Alejandro Villanueva (also 6'9") and speedy 6'7" WR/TE Ifeanyi Momah. None of them survived training camp, but Villanueva and Momah eventually landed with the Steelers and Cardinals, respectively.

6'2" reserve safety Jerome Couplin -- nicknamed "The Osprey" due to his 81" wingspan -- is still on the Eagles roster but played a total of eight snaps on D all last year, even though the Birds were desperate for DB depth. (Starting safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond played the most defensive snaps in the NFL, with 1,215 each.)

So bigger people might beat up little people, and they have a great chance to get a spot on the 90-man training camp roster, but they're certainly not locks to make final 53. What does this mean for the Niners? In Indianapolis, Chip remarked on OT Trent Brown (6'8", 355).

"He’s got great physical skills. He’s got great balance. He’s got great flexibility. You see him and you’re like ‘Oh my God. That guy’s gigantic.’ "

This emphasis on size, which dovetails nicely with Baalke's, is not good news for fans who want the Niners to grab Jared Goff (whose hands measured just 9.0" inches at the combine) or Vernon Adams, Jr. (9 1/8" hands, 5' 10 7/8" tall). Chip's been talking about the importance of hand size since he was in Eugene. Without naming names, he said this at the Combine:

"You better have big hands. (Seattle’s) Russell Wilson’s 5-10 ½, but he’s got 10 ¼ hands. You better have a big paw to manipulate the football."

...They’re guidelines. It’s not like ‘He had nine-inch hands, he’s out.’ … If you just look at it from a pure analytical standpoint, the guys who are more successful at the quarterback position have had bigger hands. Has there been someone who had had size-9 hands that has been successful? Yeah. That’s true.

But if you’re always looking for the exception … basically you’re playing the odds. It’s like going to the horse track. Here’s our odds. If we take guys that are this height, this weight, this arm length, eventually you have a better chance of winning than if you’re always looking for the special player.

"... It’s a lot easier to take a bunch of 6-5 guys and figure out who’s going to be your quarterback. Because they have a better chance of being successful at it. You’re just really playing the odds.

Of course, Baalke is making the choices, not Chip. And there are obviously a lot of fans pulling for hometown hero Goff. They will like Chip's comments about the most important thing he looks for in a quarterback.

It's not the ability to run, which you might have guessed from his selection of Nick Foles, Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez in Philadelphia (though he did give the starting job to Mike Vick after an open training camp competition in 2013.) And it's not size. The best way for a quarterback to win Chip's favor is to avoid turnovers.

"First and foremost, [a quarterback has] to be a great decision maker. That’s the most critical factor in everything he does. The ones who are the best in the game, they all come in different shapes and sizes. You can look at Russell Wilson and Tom Brady. One is 5-10 and the other is 6-5. They’re both outstanding decision makers. They don’t put the ball in harm’s way. Sometimes being a great quarterback is knowing when to cut your losses. You go to a combine and watch a guy and say, ‘He can throw. He can run. He can jump.’ But what kind of decisions does he make when the game’s on the line? That’s the most important thing."

A couple more quick hits:

- The coach loves Carlos Hyde's physicality. He traded away LeSean McCoy, who was more elusive (or "jingle-footed" in Kelly's lingo), and replacement DeMarco Murray disappointed by failing to live up to his north/south, hit-the-hole reputation.

- Kelly loves versatile players and those who create match-up problems. This is good news for Bruce Ellington, Jarryd Hayne, and Bruce Miller. Even though the Eagles didn't have a fullback position during the Chip Kelly years, he used James Casey as a tight end and special teams ace. Speaking of Miller, Chip said:

"You look at Bruce as a football player. A lot of times he was on the wing and was like a move tight end. I think they’ve used him here in the past. I don’t think Bruce himself can be stereotyped as ‘He’s just this.’ You’re talking about a guy who was a defensive end in college."

That's high praise from the Chippah. To him, position versatility is extremely valuable on limited NFL rosters, given injuries and matchup problem. It also signals intangible football intelligence and an inclination to teamwork over selfishness.