FOXBOROUGH — This would have been Tommy Kelly’s 11th season in the NFL.
Between New England and Oakland, the 33-year-old Kelly had appeared in 134 career games. During exhibition games and practices, the defensive tackle had been grinding in the trenches alongside Vince Wilfork and their first-team counterparts. In the offseason, Kelly accepted a pay cut that whacked nearly $1 million off his existing contract.
But around the league, fringe players like Kelly are being told they are no longer welcome with their employers. Kelly’s turn came Sunday, when the Patriots released the veteran.
More cuts are coming.
“A lot of guys who are here aren’t going to be here anymore,” said second-year defensive end Michael Buchanan. “I’ve kind of been down this road before, so I feel a little more comfortable.”
This is an uneasy time for players on the peripheries of NFL rosters. By 4 p.m. Tuesday, all teams must cut down to 75 players. The Patriots are carrying 83 after releasing Kelly, Will Smith, and James Anderson on Sunday and Justin Jones on Monday.
That Kelly’s 10 years of experience were considered expendable indicates the Patriots’ comfort in greening their defensive line. Youngsters such as Joe Vellano (25), Chris Jones (24), Sealver Siliga (24), and Jerel Worthy (24) remain on the team.
Smith, 33, had played in 139 career games, all for New Orleans. He did not play last year because of an ACL injury. The end’s dismissal gives pups such as Buchanan (23), Jake Bequette (25), and Zach Moore (23) a little bit longer to consider themselves Patriots.
Anderson is 30, with 110 games of experience with Chicago and Carolina. Steve Beauharnais, the 24-year-old with just one season of NFL play, now has a better chance of making the 53-man roster.
“My main focus is just to go out there and play with the opportunities that are given to us,” Beauharnais said. “I don’t think anybody should be nervous. Just control what you can control, really.”
For now, younger might be better.
“There’s definitely a lot of motivation, knowing that cuts are coming,” Buchanan said. “Every day, no matter if there’s cuts or not, guys are coming in and working hard. We wouldn’t have made it to this point in our lives if we didn’t work like that.”
Kelly once dressed among a bank of seven stalls in the locker room. Before Monday’s practice, his stall was empty. A folding chair, an empty name plate, and a Master lock were the only objects that signaled the stall’s previous occupancy.
Because of the overflow of players during the preseason, Moore and Dominique Easley have been sharing a stall. Assuming Kelly is not asked back, Moore and Easley should now have some room to themselves.
The Patriots will have some production to replace by letting the veterans go. Kelly played in only five games last year because of a torn ACL, but he recorded 12 tackles and 2½ sacks. Between 2010 and 2011 in Oakland, Kelly was credited with 14½ sacks.
Kelly played with the starters throughout the preseason, including Friday’s 30-7 win over Carolina. He accepted a restructured deal that would have paid him $995,000 plus incentives.
Kelly’s possible replacements are banged up. Siliga (wrist) and Jones (ankle) did not practice Monday.
Siliga played in five games last year. The third-year pro has primarily been a practice squad player for New England, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco.
Jones, claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay last year, played in 13 games for the Patriots in 2013.
Both Siliga and Jones are expected to be ready for the season opener against Miami Sept. 7.
If Siliga and Jones are slow to recover, the Patriots might call upon Worthy and Easley to assume more responsibilities.
Buchanan, Moore, and Bequette will see more reps following Smith’s release.
“You have to come in and work hard every day,” Buchanan said. “You can’t really think about who’s going to be here and who’s not. You just have to show the coaches the type of player you are and the type of person you are every day.”