TEMPE, Ariz. — On Wednesday, Tommy Kelly signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
On Thursday he was on the field with his new teammates, many of whom were hoping to make the final roster.
“Tommy did alright for jumping on the plane and jumping in there,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the following day. “He did fine and I look forward to seeing him out there some more.”
The marriage between the Cardinals and Kelly made sense on a lot of levels. Once Arizona lost defensive lineman Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL, it became imperative to add depth along the defensive line. That Kelly, a player who has amassed 36.5 sacks over the course of 10 NFL seasons with the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots — including a career-best 7.5 in 2011 — was on the market may prove to be fortuitous.
Last season, the Cardinals brought in both Eric Winston and John Abraham on the eve of training camp. Winston went on to start every game at right tackle, while Abraham earned 11.5 sacks and a spot in the Pro Bowl.
While Kelly was brought in at a later point than those two, the team is obviously hoping lightning strikes again and they find value with a veteran who was cast aside by his previous team. The Patriots cut Kelly less than a week before he was picked up by the Cardinals, giving up on a player whose 2013 season was cut short due to a torn ACL.
“It felt good, it felt like you are still wanted in this league,” Kelly said of getting the call from the Cardinals. “I wasn’t really worried about getting cut or nothing like that. I’m just happy, you know what I’m saying? I’m somewhere where somebody wants me. I’ll just come in here and contribute to the team the best way I can.”
Assuming the 33-year-old is healthy and has something left in the tank, he should be able to contribute quite a bit. While the Cardinals will not expect him to be Dockett or fill the former Pro Bowler’s shoes, Kelly — who was projected to start for the Patriots until his release — does have a track record of success since entering the league as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Mississippi State in 2004.
Kelly, who is 39th on the NFL’s active sack leader list, said he was not surprised the Patriots chose to release him because he could see the direction the team was going. He says he’s in a good situation now, and he’s happy to be part of a defense that includes Calais Campbell, John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy, with whom he was teammates with in Oakland. The scheme, he said, is similar to what he excelled in with the Raiders.
“Here it’s just hit it and get it all the time,” he said. “Just try to penetrate the offensive line and wreak havoc.”
Until he gets to do that, though, Kelly said he needs to get used to hearing the calls as well as learn a defense he has been in less than a week. The terminology is different from what he’s used to, but Kelly said he already has a basic understanding of what the Cardinals want to do.
“You know how you go into class and you don’t know exactly what’s going to be on the test,” he said. “Now I know what’s on the test, so I can go about it a better way.”
A veteran pickup late in the offseason, Kelly will likely be graded on a pass/fail basis. He’s not expected to replace Dockett, but instead will be looked upon to help be part of a rotation that will look to fill the void he has left behind. In time, of course.
“I think I can do anything you need me to do,” he said of what he brings to the table. “I can stop the run; I can definitely rush the passer.
“Like I said, I’m just trying to learn the defense, absorb it. It’s not like I have two or three weeks to learn it — I need to learn it now. I’ve got my packet with me, I’ve got my little laptop with me. So I’m going to be in it all day. I’m just trying to learn the defense.”