New England Patriots: Tommy Kelly

Checking the locks: Patriots' DTs

July, 7, 2014
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As part of this slow time on the NFL calendar, when we'll be taking a break to recharge for the 2014 season, we introduce the pre-produced "checking the locks" series in which we analyze the players on the Patriots' roster who are "locks" to stick. Today, it's defensive tackles.

Sure-fire locks: Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley, Chris Jones

Near locks: Tommy Kelly, Sealver Siliga

Trying to get in the door: Joe Vellano, Armond Armstead, Marcus Forston, Seali'i Epenesa, L.T. Tuipulotu

Wilfork
ANALYSIS: Much like the Patriots' running backs who could be viewed through two different lenses (bigger early down backs and smaller "passing" backs), the Patriots have a similar setup at defensive tackle with some bigger-bodied run-stuffers who aren't known as much for penetrating gaps (Wilfork, Siliga) and some smaller penetrators more likely to win with quickness than pure power (Easley, Jones). One area to monitor is the health of some key players as Wilfork (ruptured Achilles), Easley (torn ACL), Kelly (torn ACL) and Armstead (missed 2013 with an infection) are all coming off serious injuries. Another factor to consider is that in some sub packages, the Patriots reduce end Chandler Jones to more of a defensive tackle role. Still, the Patriots felt they could have absorbed one more "lock" in pursuing veteran Kevin Williams before Williams signed with Seattle, which is a sign that Bill Belichick might still be concerned with the depth at this spot.

Some context regarding Kevin Williams, DTs

June, 18, 2014
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Veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams told ESPN.com NFL Nation Vikings reporter Ben Goessling that he took a little less money to sign with the Seattle Seahawks than the New England Patriots. With the specifics of Williams' contract now known, there is some added context on how far the Patriots were willing to extend financially.

Williams
Via colleague Field Yates, Williams' deal breaks down this way:

Term/total value: One year, $2.1 million
Signing bonus: $250,000
Base salary: $1.5 million ($250,000 guaranteed)
Incentives: Up to $350,000 in per-game roster bonuses

With Williams electing to sign in Seattle, here is a snapshot look at the Patriots' defensive tackle depth chart, with a quick-hit thought on each player:

Vince Wilfork (6-2, 325): Captain and 11-year veteran is making progress in his return from a ruptured Achilles last September. Looks to be moving well.

Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310): Another 11-year veteran, he took another step in his return from a torn ACL by participating in 11-on-11 drills Tuesday.

Dominique Easley (6-2, 288): First-round draft choice is coming off two torn ACLs over the past 22 months, suffered in college, and has yet to take the field this spring.

Chris Jones (6-1, 309) Second-year player was claimed on waivers last year and led all Patriots defensive tackles in snaps played in 2013. Best when penetrating.

Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325): After a slow start to his career, the run-stuffer looks like he has built some momentum as a developmental prospect behind Wilfork.

Armond Armstead (6-5, 305): The former Southern Cal and Canadian Football League standout has been sidelined for most of spring camps after missing all of last season with an infection.

Joe Vellano (6-2, 300): Hard-working second-year player from Maryland is a lunch pail type of guy who plays with top effort.

Marcus Forston (6-3, 305): Second-year player has spent multiple seasons on the practice squad and has filled in when injuries hit.

L.T. Tuipulotu (6-1, 305): Undrafted free agent from Utah is on the developmental track.

Seali'i Epenesa (6-1, 310): Undrafted free agent from UCLA was signed on Tuesday.

Tommy Kelly restructures pact

March, 13, 2014
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Patriots defensive tackle Tommy Kelly has restructured the final year of his contract, creating about $800,000 in cap space for the team.

Kelly was set to earn $2.5 million in his contract -- $1.95 million in base salary, a $50,000 workout bonus and $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses.

As part of the restructured pact, it now breaks down this way:

Signing bonus: $100,000
Base salary: $955,000
Roster bonuses: $800,000 ($50K per game he's on the 46-man active list)
Total value: $1.85 million

The deal also includes the following playing-time incentives:

20 percent -- $95,000
30 percent -- $195,000
40 percent -- $345,000
50 percent -- $495,000
60 percent -- $645,000

(The maximum Kelly can earn in playing-time incentives is $645,000. Thus, the maximum value of the new contract is still $2.5 million.)

Patriots positional review: DT

January, 31, 2014
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Continuing our positional review/offseason preview, here’s a look at the New England Patriots defensive tackles, ordered in percentage of defensive snaps played.

Chris Jones
Age: 23
2013 status: Started 11 of 13 games played after being claimed on waivers during Week 2 of the regular season. Played the second most snaps among rookie defensive tackles in the NFL with 786.
2013 highlights: There are two lenses to examine Jones through. One the one hand, he gave the Patriots much more than anyone could’ve reasonably expected, including 54 tackles and six sacks. Conversely, there were times when Jones was overwhelmed as an anchor. Nonetheless, he’s a piece of the puzzle going forward, as he’ll continue to learn from Vince Wilfork and grow within the Patriots’ system. He deserves credit for hanging tough given the unlikely circumstances surrounding his rookie season.
Current contract runs through: 2016 season

Joe Vellano
Age: 25
2013 status: Played in every game, starting eight in total. Played just fewer than 58 percent of the regular season defensive snaps.
2013 highlights: An undrafted rookie who worked his way on to the roster, Vellano, like Jones, exceeded expectations. He had flashes of both pass-rush and run-stuffing ability, but his modest size also left him susceptible to being run at by the offense. A player that is better suited as a reserve than a starter, but offers developmental depth going forward.
Current contract runs through: 2015 season

Tommy Kelly
Age: 33
2013 status: Started five of five games played, registering 2.5 sacks and playing 221 defensive snaps.
2013 highlights: Became an immediate starter alongside Wilfork after signing as a free agent last offseason. Provided size, girth and discipline along the defensive line to bolster both the run defense and interior pass rush. A reported ACL tear shelved Kelly for the final 11 games of the season, though he should be healthy by the time training camp rolls around, if not sooner. He was a big loss.
Current contract runs through: 2014 season

Sealver Siliga
Age: 23
2013 status: A late-season riser who ended up playing in the final five regular-season games, starting four. Also started each of the two playoff games.
2013 highlights: Siliga played the fewest snaps among the Patriots’ unheralded young defensive tackles, but by the end of the season he appeared to offer the most long-term value. He plays with a stout base and good leverage along the line of scrimmage, not getting his shoulders turned and not giving ground. Should benefit from learning behind Wilfork for a full offseason.
Current contract runs through: 2014 season

Vince Wilfork
Age: 32
2013 status: Started all four games that he played before going down with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
2013 highlights: Wilfork’s production according to the box score wasn’t anything to write home about, but the consistent message to convey with his play is that it transcends statistics. He’s a force at taking on double teams and clearing space for his linebackers. The injury ended his season and contributed to a run defense that struggled throughout the season. Has a big salary for the 2014 season, and the team could view him as an extension candidate.
Current contract runs through: 2014 season

Isaac Sopoaga
Age: 32
2013 status: Acquired via trade from Philadelphia, played in six regular-season games, starting two. Became an inactive player down the stretch.
2013 highlights: Desperate for bodies in the middle of their defense, the Patriots added Sopoaga via a trade. The maneuver didn’t cost them much (essentially about 25 draft spots), but Sopoaga had a limited on-field impact. With a big contract for the next two seasons, he seems like a likely cap casualty.
Current contract runs through: 2015 season

Others on the roster: Marcus Forston, Armond Armstead, Cory Grissom

POSITIONAL NEED: During an interview this past season, Bill Belichick referenced the team’s “top three” defensive tackles being on injured reserve. The first two -- Wilfork and Kelly -- were obvious, but the third was Armstead, a former Canadian Football League standout who had surgery on an infection just before training camp. If all three return next season -- each is coming off of a serious injury -- the Patriots will have very good depth and talent at the position. Wilfork and Kelly are both in their 30’s and entering the final year of their contracts, so this could still be an area where the Patriots look to add a young body. But while some might perceive this to be the first area of need for the team entering 2014, getting healthy would go a long way towards resolving the woes of the run defense from last season.

New England Patriots season wrap-up

January, 22, 2014
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video
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 4
Preseason power ranking: 6

Biggest surprise: How about a murder charge to a tight end who had previously been thought of as a centerpiece of the team? Aaron Hernandez's murder charge threatened to sink the Patriots' season before it even started, but in a credit to Bill Belichick, his staff and the players, it was hardly a distraction as they once again advanced to the AFC Championship Game. There were no on-field surprises that could come close to topping that.

.Biggest disappointment: Rob Gronkowski's knee injury Dec. 8. This falls into the wider-ranging category of “season-ending injuries to top players” and the Patriots had their fair share early in the season -- defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6), linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13), and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Oct. 27). But Gronkowski’s felt like a season-changer in some respects, deflating some of the optimism that had been built up at that point because the offense looked markedly different with him back on the field.

Biggest need: Re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib. The four-game stretch of football he played from Sept. 22 to Oct. 13 was as impressive as we’ve seen from a Patriots cornerback in recent memory, the highlight coming when he was matched up against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and held him without a catch before leaving in the third quarter with injury. The 2013 season showed how the Patriots’ defense is different with a healthy No. 1 matchup option like Talib, with the final piece of evidence coming in the AFC Championship Game when he left with a knee injury in the second quarter.

Team MVP: It has to be quarterback Tom Brady, with Talib, receiver Julian Edelman and kicker Stephen Gostkowski the other strong candidates. This was a “do more with less” type season for Brady, similar to 2006, and he willed the offense to productive results despite almost a complete overhaul. He’s the consummate leader, almost like another coach, and the Patriots don’t advance to the conference championship without him.

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Patriots cap and IR ramifications

December, 10, 2013
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A case can be made that the New England Patriots have had to deal with more critical season-ending injury issues than any other team in the NFL, as frontline players such as tight end Rob Gronkowski, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly headline those on injured reserve.

The loss of the players on the injured reserve is also felt from a salary cap perspective, as the Patriots have a total of $27.4 million of salary on injured reserve, second most in the NFL behind only the Rams at $28.8 million.

With an assist from Brian McIntyre, a cap expert and owner of MacsFootballBlog.com, below is a list at the top five teams hit hardest from a cap perspective by injured reserve players.

Rams -- $28.8 million
Patriots -- $27.4 million
Texans -- $26.1 million
Bengals -- $21.4 million
Giants - $19.7 million

The next five in line are the Broncos, Bears, Jets, Saints and Colts.

McIntyre also passes along that $27.4 million represents 21.1 percent of the Patriots' adjusted cap number, second to only the Rams at 23.4 percent.

These figures further reinforce: injuries have hit the Patriots hard, both as it relates to on-field impact and salary cap management off of it.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
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Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

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Injury report: Kelly out; Gronk probable

November, 1, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A hamstring injury has limited Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in practice each day this week, but he remains probable to play Sunday against the Steelers. Gronkowski also continues to rehab his back and forearm following offseason surgeries

Gronkowski, who may have suffered the hamstring injury versus the Dolphins Sunday, was a full participant in last Friday's practice, the first time he completed a full workout this regular season. He was also designated as probable heading into the Week 8 Dolphins game.

Coach Bill Belichick was asked about the hamstring issue for Gronkowski on Friday. "We’ll just list the injuries today at the end of practice on the injury report the way we see it," he said. "We’ll do that with everybody."

Cornerback Aqib Talib, who has missed the past two games due to a hip injury, is questionable to play after practicing on a limited basis each day this week. The 27-year-old has developed into a top defensive player and is often used to shadow an opponent's best receiver.

In his absence, the Patriots have started veteran cornerback Kyle Arrington (who is questionable due to a groin issue) opposite second-year player Alfonzo Dennard.

Quarterback Tom Brady, who was limited during Thursday's practice due to a right shoulder issue, is probable and is likely to play Sunday. He was also limited in last Thursday's practice.

Brady has appeared to deal with discomfort in his throwing hand over each of the past two weeks, but has insisted that he is not working through any sort of issue.

The Patriots have ruled out just one player, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee), for Sunday.


Injury report: Gronk limited again

October, 31, 2013
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For the second consecutive day, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski practiced on a limited basis as he deals with a hamstring issue on top of his previously existing back and forearm injuries.

Along with Gronkowski, cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and running back Leon Washington, who all sat out in Week 8, were limited.

One change from Wednesday's report was that quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder) was listed as limited. [Editor's note: The Patriots originally listed Brady as a full participant, but sent out a correction Friday morning]

The team will practice again Friday and release its final injury report before a Week 9 matchup with the Steelers.

Vereen back at practice for Patriots

October, 30, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots running back Shane Vereen, who injured his wrist in Week 1 and was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return, was back at practice on Wednesday, a critical step in his rehab and potential return to game action.

In being placed on IR with the designation to return, Vereen did not count against the 53-man roster, but was ineligible to practice for six weeks and must miss a total of at least eight games. Because the Patriots have a bye in Week 10, Vereen could return to the field as soon as Week 11.

He was a standout performer in the team's Week 1 win over Buffalo, rushing for a career-best 101 yards. He gives the team its best option as an up-tempo running back to catch the football out of the backfield.

Veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and running back Leon Washington (ankle) were also back at practice. Each player was injured during a Week 5 loss in Cincinnati and has not practiced since. With Kelly and Washington back in the fold, all members of the 53-man roster were present.

Kelly was the team's top defensive tackle after losing Vince Wilfork for the season. The Patriots added veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who also made his practice debut, via trade on Tuesday. After relying on rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano in recent weeks, a return from Kelly and Sopoaga gives the team experience along the defensive front.

Finally, the Patriots announced before practice that three rookies -- wide receiver Josh Boyce, linebacker Steve Beauharnais and defensive back Justin Green -- were named the practice players of the week for Week 8. Those players wear black jerseys for the week following their award.

Injury report: Brady a full participant

October, 25, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After being limited Thursday during practice, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder) was back to full participation Friday and was listed as probable to play Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

Brady
He was a surprise addition to the team's injury report on Thursday, though the issue does not appear to be serious. Brady has been listed on the injury report with a right shoulder issue in previous seasons, but has never missed a game due to shoulder discomfort. He has started 71 straight regular-season games, dating back to the start of the 2009 season.

Wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion/groin) and cornerback Aqib Talib (hip), who both practiced each day this week on a limited basis, are questionable to play after missing Week 7 due to injury.

Amendola will need to pass the NFL's concussion protocol, if he has not already, before returning to game action. Coach Bill Belichick did not indicate whether the receiver had taken it when asked Wednesday. On Friday, Amendola said, "I'm healthy and I'm ready to play."

Tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm), who made his season debut on Sunday, is listed as probable after practicing every day this week. Earlier in the week, he indicated that he was ready to put his current injuries behind him.

The Patriots have ruled out just two players for Sunday, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and running back Leon Washington (ankle), who have each been out since leaving a Week 5 game against the Bengals.

Here are the full reports:

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DT Tommy Kelly remains out of practice

October, 24, 2013
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Kelly
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For the second consecutive day, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and running back Leon Washington (ankle) were the only players not spotted at the start of New England Patriots practice.

Each has been off the practice field since sustaining injuries in Week 5, and both have been inactive in the two games since.

As was the case on Wednesday, cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) and wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion/groin) were again on the practice field. They both took part on a limited basis during Wednesday's workout.

Running back Brandon Bolden spent much of the media portion of practice riding a stationary bike. He has been limited this season because of a knee issue.

The shells-and-helmets practice was the Patriots' second of three on-field sessions this week before hosting the 3-3 Miami Dolphins this Sunday.

Talib and Amendola present at practice

October, 23, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) and wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion) were present at practice on Wednesday, conducted in full pads on the fields outside of Gillette Stadium. Meanwhile, veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and running back Leon Washington (ankle) were again not spotted.

Talib sat out practice Wednesday and Thursday of last week before returning to practice on a limited basis on Friday, though he was unable to suit up for the team's game against the Jets. In five games this season, Talib has recorded four interceptions and has established himself as arguably the most important defender on the team's active roster.

Amendola, meanwhile, was back on the field for the first time since a big hit taken back in Week 6 that forced him to miss his fourth game this season. In order to return to game action, he must pass the NFL's concussion testing protocol. He has 16 catches for 159 yards in three games played this season.

Kelly's absence from practice continues for the third straight week, as he was injured in the team's Week 5 game against the Bengals. In his absence, the team has relied on rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones as primary starters. Washington, who was also injured in Week 5, has been limited to just two games this season.

Newly acquired defensive end Andre Carter, wearing number 96, was present for practice, as was practice squad pick-up Sealver Siliga, wearing number 71.

Projecting the Patriots' inactives

October, 19, 2013
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Before the New England Patriots play a game, we'll attempt to predict the team's inactive players.

Our best guess on the list for Sunday's road game against the New York Jets:

Danny Amendola: Receiver sustained a concussion last Sunday, has been held out of practice all week, and is already ruled out by the team.

Chris Barker: Rookie offensive guard could be active if there are concerns with those above him on the depth chart, Dan Connolly (concussion) and Marcus Cannon (shoulder).

Tommy Kelly: Veteran defensive tackle has missed the last two weeks of practice with a right knee injury and has already been ruled out.

Matthew Slater: Special-teams captain has been at practice but still has a cast on his left wrist, which makes us think it might be too early to expect him back.

Aqib Talib: Cornerback missed practices Wednesday and Thursday with a left hip injury and didn't look fully comfortable in his return to practice Friday.

Leon Washington: Veteran running back missed the last two weeks of practice with an ankle injury and has already been ruled out.

Tavon Wilson: Reserve safety and core special-teams player has been limited with a hamstring injury and has missed the last two games.

W2W4: Five things for Patriots-Jets

October, 18, 2013
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Coming off their best win of the season, one might expect the talk to center around the improved Patriots defense and an offense that came through during a time it was needed most.

Understandably, however, much of the discussion around the Patriots this week has focused on a mounting list of injuries, including a season-ending pectoral tear to linebacker Jerod Mayo, the tackling machine who has twice been named to the Pro Bowl.

SportsNation

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While Mayo's injury was the most severe in terms of games it will force him to miss, the team is also dealing with the uncertain status of cornerback Aqib Talib (hip; doubtful), while wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion), defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and Leon Washington (ankle) have all been ruled out for Week 7.

Those all come on top of the biggest injury issue of the season, tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm), who has yet to return to game action but has been medically cleared to play Sunday. That was the final major hurdle for Gronkowski to overcome in his recovery process, and while there's a difference between being medically cleared and being guaranteed to play, all signs point to a Gronk return this weekend.

Regardless of who plays for the Patriots, it won't come easy. Despite a forgettable Week 6 showing, the Jets have played tough this season, nearly defeating the Patriots back in Week 2 at Gillette Stadium.

The two teams will now go at it at MetLife Stadium, and here's what we'll be watching for:

1. Impact of Gronk. If we operate under the presumption that Gronkowski will in fact return to the field, the next question becomes what does it mean for him team? Well, simply, a lot. The Patriots have hardly relied on the tight ends as pass catchers this season like they have with Gronkowski on the field, and the results in the red zone demonstrate how badly they've missed the burly fourth-year pro. In 22 trips to the red zone, the Patriots have just nine touchdowns scored. In 2012, they were the best red zone offense in football in terms of percentage of touchdowns scored. While Gronkowski could be limited in his return in terms of snaps played and usage, simply having him back on the field is a critical boon for an offense that may have regained its swagger late last Sunday.

2. Filling big voids on both sides. The Patriots are beat up on both sides of the ball, as they'll be without wide receiver Amendola (concussion), stud defensive tackle Kelly (knee) and likely cornerback Talib (hip; he's listed as doubtful to play). How they fill these voids, particularly Talib if he doesn't play, will be a primary storyline entering the game. Will safety Devin McCourty be shifted back to his natural position at cornerback? Or might the Patriots stick with the trio of Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and rookie Logan Ryan as their top cornerbacks to account for when the Jets try to spread things out a bit? The team has dealt with Amendola's absence before, as he missed three games earlier this season due to a groin injury.

[+] EnlargeDont'a Hightower
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesDont'a Hightower has 26 tackles this season for the Patriots.
3. Defensive communication. As if those injuries weren't enough, the Patriots are now without both of their defensive captains, with Mayo sidelined for the year due to a torn pectoral muscle. Beyond what he does once the ball in snapped, Mayo also shoulders so much responsibility in between plays. He was the on-field defensive quarterback, wearing the earpiece in his helmet to communicate with coordinator Matt Patricia. It looks like Dont'a Hightower will take on those duties this week, but it'll be an 11-man effort on each play to transfer the calls from the sideline to each defender on the field. Top draft choice Jamie Collins and veteran Dane Fletcher could be in for additional defensive snaps as well.

4. Can the run game solve the Jets D? A week after Stevan Ridley's best game of the season, he faces arguably the top defensive front seven in the NFL right now in terms of stopping the run. The Jets are led by defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon “Snacks” Harrison and rookie Sheldon Richardson up front, with middle linebacker David Harris providing a Mayo-like impact on the second level. The Patriots' interior offensive line will be very much put to the test if it hopes to establish a rhythm on the ground early. The Patriots mustered just 54 yards on 24 attempts during a Week 2 meeting.

5. Keep the turnover streak alive. For 33 consecutive games, the Patriots have forced a turnover, the longest active streak in the NFL and a key catalyst behind some of their recent defensive success. Back in Week 2, it was three fourth-quarter interceptions of Jets quarterback Geno Smith that sealed the 13-10 win. It's been something of the tale of two Smiths through six games, as he's managed three wins as a starter and has just three interceptions in those games. In the other three games, all losses, he's thrown seven. The Patriots need to pressure Smith into more bad decisions, a recipe for success against the rookie.

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