The Patriots released three veteran defensive players on Sunday: tackle Tommy Kelly, lineman Will Smith, and linebacker James Anderson.
The moves were part of the first wave of roster cuts, as teams must trim their 90-man training camp rosters to 75 by Tuesday at 4 p.m.
The release of Kelly was a surprise. Though he is 33 years old and coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament last year, he had been seeing time with the first-team defense in camp and in the exhibition games, and seemingly playing well.
He also took a pay cut in the offseason, restructuring his contract from a base salary of $1.95 million to $995,000, plus incentives that would have gotten him back to that amount had he met them.
Coach Bill Belichick typically cuts veterans he respects during the first cutdown, ostensibly to give them a greater chance to catch on somewhere else.
However, were Kelly not able to sign with another club, it’s possible he could be back after Week 1, when veteran salaries aren’t fully guaranteed for the season.
Anderson’s release was less surprising, but on a team with little depth at linebacker and with Anderson being a coverage specialist, something the Patriots haven’t had in recent years, he seemed a safe bet to make the roster.
Though he isn’t strong against the run, Anderson is seemingly still effective, as he led the Bears in tackles last year.
Smith, the longtime Saints pass rusher who also tore his ACL last season, seemed like a longer shot to stick based on his reps in practices.
The release of Kelly could be a sign that one or both of the Patriots’ injured young tackles, Chris Jones (ankle) and Sealver Siliga (wrist/arm), may be ready to return.
Jones hurt his ankle in the first exhibition game against Washington, while Siliga was injured a couple of days before, during joint practices.
It could also be a good sign for Jerel Worthy, the former second-round pick the Patriots acquired in a trade from the Packers earlier this month. Worthy underwent lower-back surgery in the offseason. He also tore his ACL toward the end of his rookie season in 2012.
“The big thing is that Jerel just hasn’t played,” said Belichick during a conference call on Sunday. “This is the first week he’s practiced or played, kind of similar to a couple other players that we brought into camp like [linebacker] James Morris a couple weeks ago. There’s an acclimation process to playing football. I think that goes for any player. I’m sure he went through that this week and in his first game and we’ll see how that goes going forward.”
With Sunday’s cuts, the Patriots are down to 84 players.