FOXBORO -- The Patriots defense lost its muscle up front when Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down with season-ending injuries in back-to-back weeks early last season.
But with the arrival of spring workouts -- OTAs and mini-camp, which started on Tuesday -- have come positive signs for both players.
Wilfork has steadily become more and more involved in on-the-field work with each passing day, and Kelly participated in 11-on-11 drills in front of the media for the first time this preseason on Tuesday.
Kelly was not present during last Thursday's OTA, but it appears as though the health of his surgically repaired ACL is improving.
"I feel fine," Kelly said. "Just getting back to making moves and knocking the rust off, that's really what it is with me. I'm really not worried too much about my knee."
Kelly said he considered his uptick in workload a milestone of sorts in his recovery, yet he knows there's still progress to be made before he regains the nearly every-down role he had earned before getting hurt last season.
"You've got to go through the process of proving to Bill [Belichick] that your knee is strong enough, proving to your coaches that your knee is strong enough, getting your teammates to trust you again," Kelly said. "It's a process."
As a member of the Raiders in 2007, Kelly suffered a season-ending knee injury -- the first such setback of his playing career. Though difficult at the time, Kelly said his experience working through rehab taught him what it takes to get back to full health for his most recent go-round on injured reserve.
"Having that experience, that I went through it one time, and just knowing that you work your butt off everyday and just don't . . . if something ain't happening, it ain't working like it's supposed to, just give it time," Kelly said. "It's gonna come back. Just knowing that you can go through the process much easier don't stress yourself out so much."
Kelly has been close by as both Wilfork and rookie first-round pick Dominique Easley have gone through their own rehab programs -- Kelly said he's been in the Foxboro area since his knee surgery in December -- and was confident that, like him, both were doing all they could to be available to the team soon.
"What I know of 'V,' I think 'V' gonna be alright," Kelly said. "He's a very hard worker. He's a very hard worker, and he's the type of person that once he commit his mind to something, he's gonna get it done. I don't think I should worry too much about him. He should be OK."
And Easley is "working, just like I am," Kelly said. "Just stacking days. 'Nique gonna be alright. He's a very hard worker. When he gets out here, I guess I'll be just as excited as ya'll."
The Patriots, of course, would be excited to have all of their defensive tackles healthy and fully participating at mini-camp. Even if Kelly isn't there quite yet, he believes he's headed in the right direction.
"All I know," Kelly said, "is I feel good."