FOXBOROUGH — Even though he has started 90 consecutive games and came to New England on a two-year contract worth $5 million, Tommy Kelly isn’t making any assumptions.
The genial 32-year-old defensive lineman chuckled when talking about the prospect of being on a team that consistently makes it to the postseason.
“I have to make the team first,” he said Wednesday. “Bill [Belichick] doesn’t guarantee anybody anything. I have to get on the team before I start thinking about that.”
You really feel that way?
“Yeah! You see how many people they get rid of around here?” Kelly said, his eyes widening. “Make the team first, then worry about all that.”
Since signing with the Patriots April 10 after nine seasons in Oakland, Kelly has watched his new club release Brandon Deaderick and then Kyle Love, players who combined for 16 starts at defensive tackle last season.
Kelly hasn’t felt this way since 2004, when he came into the league as an undrafted rookie out of Mississippi State, fighting to make the Raiders’ roster. He played in 10 games that season, with three starts and four sacks.
“That’s how I feel right now, coming in as a free agent — nothing’s guaranteed to you. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole. You could easily be replaced,” Kelly said. “That’s how I feel.”
At 6 feet 6 inches and around 300 pounds, Kelly, like many players who arrive in New England from other teams, said it is all business around Gillette Stadium, just as his former Oakland teammate Richard Seymour told him it would be.
Although he was reluctant to discuss the situation in Oakland, Kelly said it was time for a change. He was released by the Raiders March 27, with two years remaining on a seven-year, $50.1 million contract he’d signed with the organization in 2008.
At the time of his release, Kelly was the longest-tenured position player on the roster, but general manager Reggie McKenzie, hired last year, has cut numerous high-priced players from the Al Davis Era or let them walk in free agency.
Oakland went 45-99 in Kelly’s nine seasons, never having a winning season. The team was 8-8 in 2010 and 2011.
It is only human nature to find it difficult to endure so many losses, but Kelly knew he had to maintain a high level of play .
“At the end of the day, your film is your résumé,” he said. “So I don’t care what’s going on with the record. You’ve got to handle your business personally or you won’t have a job in this league. NFL stands for ‘Not for Long.’
“If you’re not handling your business, they’ll get rid of you real quick.”
Kelly clearly has endured heading into his 10th season. He says simply working hard is a big part of his longevity.
It also helps his cause that he’s available every Sunday. Kelly takes a great deal of pride in his durability.
“It’s big when you play D-tackle; you have to be reliable,” he said. “It’s a physically draining and mentally draining position. So when you’ve got a guy you know you can depend on, and that’s what I pride myself on, is being dependable. And I’m going to give my teammates all I’ve got. If you’re out there with someone you can rely on, it makes your job much easier.”
Kelly is now playing next to someone just as reliable: Vince Wilfork. The leader of the Patriots’ defense, Wilfork hasn’t missed a game since 2009. With Love and Deaderick no longer with the Patriots, Kelly and Wilfork may be spending more time together on the field.
“I love Vince,” Kelly said, smiling. “He makes my job much easier. He makes most of the line calls. It’s easy to play with somebody who’s got experience and can really, really play.”
Wilfork is a “lunch pail” player, Kelly added — reliable, consistent, a guy you know will be out there every Sunday and will give you everything he’s got.
Kelly was asked for his favorite Wilfork moment.
“His interceptions. He always has nice returns,” he said. “Usually you see a big guy pick the ball off, we get 5 yards and get down, but he’s trying to do something with it. He stiff-arms a couple people.
“You see somebody that big and athletic, you know he can play. He’s got a lot of dog in him — we love that.”
Although it was before a Patriots-Raiders meeting in 2008, Belichick has previously expressed how much he likes Kelly as a player, calling him “outstanding” and one of the best defensive linemen in the league, noting his versatility.
Those words mean a lot to Kelly.
“When you’re dealing with a coach with a résumé like [Belichick’s], if somebody like that believes in you, it makes you feel good about yourself,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a program where you’ve got to prove yourself.”
Because as Kelly has seen already, “If you don’t, he’ll get rid of you.”