FOXBORO -- Tommy Kelly knows that nothing is guaranteed to come of his eleventh training camp.
He was a starter -- and a productive one at that -- for the Patriots through five weeks last season before suffering a season-ending ACL tear, but that doesn't mean he'll be given that spot once again when the calendar flips to September.
And Kelly is well aware.
"This is a very hard team to make," he said, "so if you don’t go out there and put it on the line every day, you ain’t going to be here. Simple as that.”
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound defensive lineman had been a limited participant in training camp practices as he recovered from last year's knee surgery. He participated with a rehab group early and then practiced for two days in shoulder pads and shorts as he got closer to full-contact work.
On Tuesday, he finally donned football pants -- complete with knee and thigh pads -- putting him in full pads for the first time in camp.
"It felt wonderful, absolutely wonderful," Kelly said. "I’ve been itching to get back on the field so it felt real good baby, real good. I’m getting better. I wouldn’t put a percentage on anything but I definitely feel comfortable, I don’t feel like I have any restrictions on doing anything, I feel good."
While Kelly would have liked to be participating more earlier in camp, he tried to make the most of his rehab work so that he would be ready to reclaim his role from 2013 when he had 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks in five games.
"I’ve never been a weak link in my career, and I’m not going to start being a weak link,” he said. “So I’ve been working my tail off every day and rehabbing on the side with my conditioning to make sure when it’s time for me to get out there, they see the same player when I left against Cincinnati -- a better player. I’m not trying to come back and be the player that I was. I’m trying to come back and be a better player than I was."
Kelly is 33 years old and much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. But he believes he still has room to improve on last year and only hopes he gets the opportunity to prove that he can.
He restructured his contract this offseason which would make him easier to part ways with if the Patriots deemed young defensive linemen like Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga -- both of whom impressed in their opportunities last year -- and Dominique Easley had passed him in terms of ability.
Kelly knows anything can happen when cuts begin to be made, but those thoughts don't weigh on him.
“You only feel pressure when you doubt yourself," he said. "And I’ve never doubted myself so I’ve never really felt pressure. All I need is the snaps, baby. If I get out there they’re going to see I can play. They know I can play, but I have to gain their trust back so they know there isn’t anything wrong with my knee."
He added: “I have to get to the point where [Jerod] Mayo knows if he calls a certain call, I’m going to be where I need to be. Or if [defensive coordinator] Matt [Patricia] is going to make a call or Bill [Belichick] . . . You know what I’m saying? That’s all I’ve been trying to do. Just go out there and just practice as hard as I can and show them I don’t have any restrictions on nothing. I can do anything you need me to do. But it’s a process, and I’m going to do the process.”