FOXBOROUGH — It's a matter of trust.
Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly probably wasn't thinking of Billy Joel when he talked to the media after the Patriots' fifth practice of training camp. He was too busy thinking about the likes of linebacker Jerod Mayo, fellow defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, and coaches Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia.
To Kelly, the defense belongs to those men.
"Most definitely. Mayo's the captain, V's the captain," Kelly said. "So, I mean, you want to get their trust. And then it goes to Matty P. and then it goes to the head man, Bill, so you don't want nobody out there thinking you the weak link. And I ain't never been a weak link in my career, and I’m not fitting to start being no weak link."
Kelly played and started in five games, playing 218 snaps before he tore the ACL in his right knee. His injury was sandwiched in between Wilfork's (Week 4, Achilles) and Mayo's (Week 6, pectoral) as three of the most devastating injuries the Patriots suffered in 2013.
Young players like Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga stepped in when Kelly and Wilfork went down last year. Now, with the three injured veterans back in the fold, the Patriots defense has a strong veteran presence that was missing last year.
Kelly, however, isn't settling for what was missing last year. He wants to be better.
"I've just been working my tail off every day in rehab, on the side with my conditioning, making sure that when it's time for me to get out there, they see the same player that when I left against Cincinnati, or a better player," he said. "That's what I'm shooting for. I ain't trying to come back and be the player I was, I'm trying to come back and be a better player than I was. This is a very hard team to make, so if you don't go out there and put it on the line every day you ain't gonna be here. Simple as that."
Kelly wouldn't put a percentage on how far along his rehab has come, or on how he is feeling. He appears comfortable, though, and has gradually increased his workload over the course of training camp.
At the onset of camp, he was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt doing conditioning work with the other injured players while the rest of the team was practicing. When the rest of the team put on full pads, Kelly put on his shoulder pads while still wearing shorts. Tuesday was the first practice of training camp in which he wore full pads.
It's been a long process, but Kelly wouldn't call it a frustrating one.
"No, no-no-no-no-no. It's been positive," he said. "I mean, at the end of the day, they're looking out for your best interest. But you know, I wanna get out on the field. I'm the type of guy that I can't roll out of bed and my game is just gonna be great. I gotta go out there every day and work on my hands, work on my get-out, work on my explosion, reading my keys, so I'm the type of guy that loves to practice."
Kelly's return to practice means he has joined the fray among the defensive tackles competing for reps next to Wilfork. Jones, Vellano, Siliga, and Kelly have all had their turns in that role throughout the course of training camp. Marcus Forston got his opportunity in that spot on Tuesday.
For now, Kelly is just focusing on himself.
"Me personally, I ain't never worried about no competition. I love competition," he said. "You never worry about what's behind you, you worry about what's in front of you. I've always been very confident in myself, so I don't see nobody else. I just go out there and play."
One important player in that competition, Dominique Easley, has not yet practiced. It will be interesting to see how, and if, Easley impacts the competition and where he factors into the depth chart.
With so many people competing for those snaps, it seems as though someone is bound to step up. As Kelly continues to rehab from his injury, and participates in practice in a larger capacity, he improves the chances that he could be that someone.