FOXBOROUGH ó One of the story lines for the 2014 Patriots will be the development of the defensive line and how both veterans and rookies will be thrown into a lively competition.
Last year, what was supposed to be a shored up unit was thrown into disarray after Vince Wilfork then Tommy Kelly were lost for the season due to injuries. Kelly had specifically signed with the Patriots last offseason to help out Wilfork in the trenches, hopefully elevating the unit to respectability. But he suffered a knee injury in Week 5 of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals. After Kelly's injury, the Patriots cycled through defensive tackles Joe Vellano, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, and Isaac Sopoaga at the position. While he was not expected to be placed on injured reserve at the time, he joined seven other Patriots on the sideline for the remainder of the 2013 season.
"That was my plan," Kelly said of his intended return last season. "Thatís what I was hoping and praying for. It just didnít work out that way. Me and the training staff, we worked hard, trying to get me back to the point where I could get in the game and stuff, but it just didnít work out that way."
Now, both Wilfork and Kelly have mended their injuries enough to participate in the team's minicamp practices.
"I feel good," Kelly said. "I mean, itís just a day-to-day process. Just stacking days together. Just coming in and working hard every day, getting the knee a little stronger."
Along with Vellano, Jones, and Siliga, Kelly and Wilfork are a part of deep group of tackles that will be competing for snaps (and roster spots) on this team. For Kelly, that might mean a larger sense of urgency because he knows his place on the roster isn't necessarily certain, especially after his experience on injured reserve.
"Youíre part of the team but you ainít because youíre not in the game plan," he said. "You know, I really donít care how many good things you got to say, if you ainít in the game plan or you ainít in the game, they really donít care that much [anyway]. So you know, if the guys asked me something I was there for them, but I just tried to stay out of the way."
Kelly, 33, had 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season in five games. He restructured his contract in March, signing a one-year deal for $1.805 million. Only $100,000 of his contract is guaranteed, with playing incentives for the percentage of snaps he has maxing out at $645,000. So there is a greater incentive for him to be healthy and to outwork the younger defensive tackles in camp, including draft pick Dominique Easley.
All eyes will be trained on Kelly in camp because of the competition and because the Patriots could conceivably let him go, despite whatever flash of dominance he had in five games last season. That would continue a trend of the team going younger.