FOXBOROUGH — For the third straight season, the ever-durable Vince Wilfork started all 16 games for the Patriots in 2012, and had one of two younger players next to him during the year: Kyle Love or Brandon Deaderick.
But both of those players were released in the offseason, leaving the Patriots thin at defensive tackle.
Question marks remain about who will serve as the backups at the position, but the answer to who will start alongside Wilfork has become obvious: Tommy Kelly. The veteran, who has not missed a game in five years, signed a two-year deal with New England in April, putting him miles away from his first NFL home in Oakland, literally and figuratively.
While Kelly has said more than once that his only concern with the Patriots is making the team — he has seen how quickly Bill Belichick will pull the trigger on a roster move — he has garnered praise from many on his new team, including Belichick, Logan Mankins, and, on Tuesday, Wilfork.
“He’s passionate about the game, he loves the game, and he works hard,” Wilfork said.
Wilfork, the definition of stout — he is listed at 6 feet 2 inches, 325 pounds but is a touch shorter and heavier — and Kelly, at 6-6, 310, are very different physically. Wilfork believes that will make things even tougher for opponents.
“With his size and speed that he plays with, the power that he plays with, just his size in general — we’re both big guys, but he’s a lot taller than me, he’s longer than me, at the same time he brings the power,” Wilfork said. “He’s a good three-technique [and] when we want to move him, five [technique] — that’s very, very good because we can move him to different positions.”
With Wilfork and Kelly slated to spend so much time together — with both playing tackle, or Wilfork as nose tackle and Kelly as end on a three-man line — they’ve spent time getting to know one another as players.
“You have someone come in that’s new, that really doesn’t know your style of play, the scheme you play in, you have to get on the same level, you have to understand rush lanes, you have to understand that guy’s strength, what that guy’s weakness is, where you need the help at, so every chance you can get to play with one another is always big,” Wilfork said.
“Taking extra reps, even if it’s just walking through some things. Sometimes it might just be watching film, just getting his mind-set and what does he see and do you see things the same way?
“For me, I always like to see things the same way as my defenders, and if we see things the same way, that means we’re definitely on the same page. So far, so good. It’s just one of those things that’s going to continue to grow and continue to help us down the road.”
As many of his teammates have done in recent days, Wilfork emphasized that everything right now is a work in progress; the defense is getting better, but there’s still a ways to go for everyone.
“I’m looking forward to the season to play with all of these guys, not just Tommy,” said Wilfork.
Fading back in
Having the Buccaneers in town means the return of receiver Tiquan Underwood and his now-famous hi-top fade.
Underwood is remembered fondly by many for the gracious way he handled things around Super Bowl XLVI, when New England released him the night before the game to promote Alex Silvestro. Underwood was re-signed by the Patriots a few days later and then released again in May 2012.
Despite the way his time with the Patriots went, Underwood had nothing but good things to say about his time with the team.
“It was a blessing,” he said. “It showed me how to be a professional. It showed me what hard work gets you, after watching Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Tom [Brady] — those guys set a great example, and I use that now in Tampa.”
Being called into the preseason opener in Philadelphia on a moment’s notice was a challenge, said Tim Tebow, but it’s part of his job.
“You’re just standing there for a while,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve had some practice with. You try and get ready; you have to be ready to go in this league.’’
Belichick was asked if he intends to keep Tebow on the 53-man roster, and replied, “That’s not anything we’re ready to talk about right now. A lot of competition out there, and we’ll see how it all plays out.”
Landi in, Vega out
The Patriots signed tight end Evan Landi, an undrafted rookie out of South Florida. He was initially signed by Tampa Bay.
To make room for Landi, the team released defensive lineman Jason Vega, a Brockton native who played at Northeastern.
A league source said Vega injured his knee Friday night against the Eagles and had an MRI Tuesday.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.