One of the New England Patriots biggest needs heading into the 2013 offseason was a defensive tackle who can rush the passer, because the Patriots just could not generate pressure up the middle. In order to try and kick-star the pass rush from the defensive tackle position, the Patriots had to move Jermaine Cunningham to DT at times (which really didn’t work). When Vince Wilfork is your best DT against the pass, then it’s time to re-evaluate things at the position.
The Patriots decided to sign a former USC Trojans and CFL star in Armond Armstead, and he’s expected to get heavy snaps as part of a pass rushing rotation at the defensive tackle position. In April, the Patriots decided to pounce on former Oakland Raiders veteran DT Tommy Kelly, and they gave him a two-year deal. The Patriots previously showed interest in another Raiders teammate of his in Desmond Bryant, but they pulled out of the race for Bryant shortly after (I wonder if his minor arrest in Miami had something to do with that) and he was signed by the Cleveland Browns.
Kelly had a down year in 2012, and that’s largely due to some terrible discipline. He had a whopping ten penalties and would have had 11 if one was not offset. The good thing is that the Patriots do a good job of keeping players disciplined, and they will have to do that with Kelly. There are times when his lack of discipline undermines the team, but he also played with the Oakland Raiders and they record penalties with the best of them (I wonder how much of an affect that had on Kelly’s tendency to commit penalties).
Although Kelly is more of a pass rushing defensive tackle, he isn’t incompetent against the run either. He’s not good either, so I’d probably put him in the “subpar” category, which is fine if he can produce as a pass rusher. Sometimes I wonder if the Patriots set themselves too thin at DT, but Brandon Deaderick was too poor of a player to keep and Kyle Love didn’t want to take a year off (I definitely don’t blame him, even if the Pats were just unsure if he could quickly comeback from the effects of diabetes).
Anyway, back to Tommy Kelly. In 2011, he recorded eight sacks and was even better as a pass rusher in an incredible 2010 season. But in 2012, he had just six hits on the quarterback. That’s still pretty good for a DT, and it would have been a huge upgrade over all the Pats pass rushers last season. The Patriots pass rushing at DT was just pathetic last season, but the additions of Kelly and Armstead are clearly huge for the pass rushing. The interior should be able to supplement Chandler Jones’s pass rushing (and Rob Ninkovich’s spurts of pass rushing that are deadly due to his ability to finish off plays despite not getting consistent pressure), and that will in turn provide a lot of relief to a secondary that didn’t have enough help from the pass rush last season.
In short, Kelly filled up an absolutely huge need for the Patriots, but it is up to him to bounce back with his new team. The contract is team-friendly, the change of scenery should do him well, and the 32-year-old will likely buy in to the Patriots mentality as a veteran player in this league. The pass rushing DT is also quite athletic and versatile on the line at 6’6″, 300 pounds, so he can fit the Patriots as a 3-4 DE if needed and kick inside and outside if called upon. It’s hard not to like the signing of Kelly, especially due to the Patriots lack of interior rush last season. He and Armstead constitute upgrades at the position, and a solid rookie year from UDFA steal (he really should have been drafted) Cory Grissom (I have him making the roster over Marcus Forston) would give the Patriots the run-stopping depth lost by Kyle Love (I wish there was a way the Patriots could have kept him, but that’s a controversial issue that I’ve already covered a few times).
The Patriots don’t seem to view Tommy Kelly as a declining veteran in this league, but rather a productive veteran who will benefit from a change of scenery and will be the answer to a big problem that plagued the Patriots defense last season. I would agree on that, and Kelly can make $5 million over these next two seasons (only $1 million is guaranteed) if he can meet the myriad of bonuses based on achievements that the Patriots put in the deal. Kelly can achieve those bonuses without too much trouble if he can keep his head straight and play like he did in 2010 and 2011, and that’s not too much to ask (it’s also pretty shrewd from the Patriots). By the way, don’t expect any sort of reunion between Richard Seymour and the Patriots, as this pass rushing Raiders DT is enough at this point; both Seymour and the Pats have long moved on (Seymour should really pick the Atlanta Falcons and lower his demands instead of hanging up his spikes).
There are already enough great run-stoppers at safety, corner, and especially linebacker on the Patriots; the starting defensive ends are also great run defenders. Vince Wilfork is a great run defender, no doubt about that. However, the Patriots lacked pass rushers (especially at DT), and that problem has likely been solved by adding Kelly and Armstead.