When the New England Patriots released both Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love, the two defensive tackles who took turns playing beside Vince Wilfork, you had to figure Coach Bill Belichick was looking for an upgrade at the position.

Enter Tommy Kelly.

When the massive ex-Raider first showed up, some people weren’t convinced he was the answer. After all, Kelly is 32 and trending toward the downside of his career. With his performance taking a dip last season in Oakland, questions were raised.

With the preseason complete, Kelly has put some of those doubts to rest. From what we’ve seen, it’s hard to believe he won’t provide the desired boost up front. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound veteran has been one of the team’s best and most consistent performers this summer.

He’s been a force and a powerful presence up front, with or without Wilfork parked next to him. He’s provided the kind of interior penetration the Pats were hoping to get from Albert Haynesworth.

If he continues to power his way through the middle of opposing offensive lines the way he has during the preseason, it will open lanes for blitzing linebackers. As we’ve already seen during the preseason, Brandon Spikes has taken advantage.

It’s certainly an encouraging sign. Speaking with Kelly last week, he seemed pleased by how well things have gone, and how well he’s fit in with the defense. But he knows it’s only a start. Plus, his greatest critic still hasn’t smiled.

“I’m encouraged. But until Bill is satisfied, I’m going to keep working,” Kelly said of the Patriots’ coach. “Until he’s happy with it, then I’ll be happy with it. Until then, I’m just trying to find my place.”

His place appears to be as a run-stopper and havoc-wreaker up front. His place is making the quarterback uncomfortable whatever way possible.

“But until Bill tells me what my place is, like I said, I’m just going to keep working,” Kelly said. “Around here … it’s strictly competitive. I like it that way because it keeps everyone on their toes. Ain’t nobody assured of nothing. It’s all good to me.”

Watching Kelly and his enormous arms — or levers, as Belichick calls them — it would seem he has an advantage pushing the pocket. But it’s never that easy. While he has better leverage than most linemen, he’s had to work at his technique just like everyone else. He believes he’s been taught and mentored by some of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game.

“You have to know what you’re doing. You have to know when the slide’s coming. You have to know who to rush at certain times,” Kelly said. “I got taught by pretty much the best D-tackles. Keith Millard and (Hall of Famer Warren) Sapp. I learned early on how to read certain blocking schemes. That helps out a lot.”

Kelly doesn’t mind if on certain plays he takes on a few bodies to create space for someone behind him to get to the quarterback. That works for him.

“Sometimes, you’re not going to get (the quarterback). Sometimes, you’re not going to get the glory. But when your teammates get it, and they tell you they appreciate you for knocking off that man, that’s cool,” Kelly said. “Hey, sometimes they might buy you a dinner after you help them make big plays, so I’m here for my teammates. I’m fine. I ain’t trippin’.”

He’s also not trippin’ about having Big Vince next to him. According to Kelly, they’ve adopted their own language.

“It’s wonderful. He makes it easier. He knows defense so good, to the point (where) if I’m hesitant about anything, I just look at him. He can tell me quickly so I understand,” Kelly said of Wilfork. “He’s not speaking coachspeak. He ain’t speaking how a linebacker talks. He’s talking how a defensive lineman talks. He can say one thing and I know exactly what he’s talking about. It’s good. I love it.”

Right now, with the Patriots, the feeling is mutual.


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