FOXBOROUGH — Like the other Patriots player recovering from ACL surgery, the tight end everyone has been talking about, Tommy Kelly is being eased back into things on the field.
The veteran defensive end, who hurt his right knee in Week 5 last season against the Bengals, was taken off the physically unable perform list Saturday and has been limited in what he’s been able to do at training camp.
But the massive Mississippi native, who is entering his 11th NFL season, is enjoying his time on the field, even if he hasn’t gotten full clearance just yet.
“Felt wonderful; absolutely wonderful. Been itching to get back on the field, so it felt real good. Real good,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I’m getting better. I won’t put a percentage on it, but I definitely feel comfortable. I don’t feel like I got any restrictions. I feel good.”
Kelly wants to do more on the field, but he understands that coach Bill Belichick, Jim Whalen, the team’s head trainer, and Joe Van Allen, the director of rehabilitation, all had a plan for his recovery. He has no problems with doing things their way.
“Oh, no, no, no, no — it’s been positive,” Kelly said. “I mean, at the end of the day, they’re looking out for your best interest, but you know, I’m a vet — I want to get out on the field.
“I’m the type of guy that I can’t roll out of bed and my game’s going to be great. I have to go out there every day and work on my hands, work on my get-out, work on my explosion, read my keys, so I’m the type of guy, I love practice.”
Because he is not able to take part in one-on-one drills, Kelly has been doing what he can to get back up to speed in other areas, sparring with the heavy bag in the back corner of the practice field early in each camp session, working on his hands and footwork.
He’s been through all of this before, having torn the same ACL midway through the 2007 season, when he was with the Raiders, and remembered the dark moments, but the payoff as well.
“I’ve been down that dark road — I know how you feel, how you doubt yourself. But I also know that if you work your tail off every day, you’re going to come back,” he said. “You just have to keep stacking and every day, don’t get discouraged. Don’t get too high or too low. Just come in there and work your butt off, and your knee will be fine.”
Despite being a 33-year-old defensive tackle coming off major knee surgery, Kelly has no concerns about the competition at his position, saying he’s always been very confident.
Given that he plays in New England now, and even though he was playing at a high level when he was hurt last year, that doesn’t mean Kelly is assuming he’s a lock for anything.
“Here, you can’t be secure with anything. I believe in myself a whole lot and I know what I can do. So I don’t really worry about that,” he said. “I know if I can just go out there and be Tommy and play hard as I can, I’ll be fine. I just try and go out there and get better and better and push myself.”
Just in case, however, Kelly agreed to a restructuring of his contract in the offseason. He said it wasn’t about trying to buy himself a little security. It was a simple transaction.
“It’s a business. Coach asked me for a favor and I obliged. I didn’t have no problem with it,” Kelly said. “See, at this point in my career, I’ve made a whole lot of money. Money isn’t the problem. Everybody wants to make a good living, but I ain’t tripping about money.”
The reworked contract dropped Kelly’s base salary for this season from $1.95 million to $995,000. But he will make $50,000 for each game he’s on the 46-man roster, and he also has playing time incentives. If he plays 60 percent of the defensive snaps, he’ll make an additional $645,000 (he played in more than 62 percent of the snaps for the five games he started last year).
To get there, however, Kelly believes he has to regain the trust of the Patriots’ defensive leaders, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, as well as defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Belichick.
“You don’t want nobody out there thinking you’re the weak link. I’ve never been a weak link in my career, and I’m not going to start being a weak link,” Kelly said. “So I’ve been working my tail off every day and rehabbing on the side with my conditioning to make sure when it’s time for me to get out there, they see the same player when I left against Cincinnati, a better player.
“I’m not trying to come back and be the player that 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 going to be here. Simple as that.”