Defensive end Tommy Kelly (95) chases down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the Cardinals' most recent game.
They don't play the same position and they aren't asked to do the same things, but when Bruce Arians says that the signing of Tommy Kelly looks a lot like the signing of John Abraham last year, the parallel holds up.
General Manager Steve Keim looked into the veteran market to an older player who was seemingly unwanted. Like outside linebacker Abraham, the Cardinals plucked Kelly, a defensive end, from free-agent limbo, plugged him into the lineup and got an important – and unexpected – defensive piece.
"You have to take your hat off to the front office for bringing a guy like Tommy Kelly in," defensive end Calais Campbell said.
Kelly caught the attention in the last game the Cardinals played by blocking a San Francisco field goal – on a play in which
the Cards had only nine guys on the field, no less – but the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder certainly hasn't been invisible. Unlike Abraham, who simply was added to create even more depth, Kelly was a necessary arrival after the season-ending knee injury to starter Darnell Dockett.
The Cardinals had Frostee Rucker and rookies Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson to help, but Kelly has been a rock following his release from New England.
Arians' praise "means I'm doing a good job but I have to keep getting better," Kelly said. "What John did, he learned the playbook and then his talent came out because he wasn't thinking no more. That's why you have to learn the playbook and get to the point where I can just go. Let the talent come out."
That's what the bye was for, Kelly said. Of course, the motivation lies deeper than that.
When Dockett got hurt, Kelly – who was a second-round pick in the same 2004 draft in which Dockett went to the Cardinals in the third round – noticed his draftmate's bad news. He was still a Patriot at the time, though, and didn't think much of it.
Less than a week later, after playing three preseason games for New England, the Patriots cut him. Kelly was coming off ACL surgery, but felt he had worked hard to get back to the level coach Bill Belichick needed him to be at to start. The Patriots, looking to get younger, felt otherwise.
"I saw the situation and I realized I probably wouldn't be there," Kelly said. "I couldn't take busting my tail every day getting to a game and them taking me out of the game for someone who I know isn't better than me, because he's a cheaper option. Are we worried about money here? Or are we worried about winning?"
It couldn't have turned out better for the Cardinals, who had been spurned by their initial choice to replace Dockett when veteran defensive end Brett Keisel decided at the last second to return to play in Pittsburgh. Kelly agreed to visit the
Cardinals the day after he was released.
"I knew if I got the opportunity to play, I could still play in this league at a high level," Kelly said.
So, for the veteran minimum price of $955,000 this season – more of a bargain than Abraham had been – Kelly has rotated in on 65 percent of the defensive snaps, collected a couple of tackles for loss, a pass defensed, that big blocked field goal and helped anchor the Cardinals' top five rushing defense.
"He's big and hungry and he was a good find for us," defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said.
He's been the perfect fit in the defensive linemen's room, nose tackle Dan Williams said, in part because Kelly has been so willing to share knowledge of the game and the position.
That only makes sense. Kelly wants to coach when his playing days are over, and his southern accent is reminiscent of another big ex-defensive lineman now coaching: Cardinals defensive line coach Brentson Buckner.
The way Buckner has dealt with Kelly – and Bowles, and Arians, and all on staff – are reasons Kelly feels his transition to Arizona has been a quick success. The "straight-up" way the coaches have dealt with him has been beneficial, in contrast to how he said the last days of his New England tenure played out.
"You can't ask for no more from your coaches," Kelly said. "Just keep it '100' for me. … I'm going to be a coach, and that's exactly how I'm going to treat my players."
Before Kelly is a coach, however, he has football left to play. Without Dockett, the Cardinals are lucky to have it be with them.
"You bring in a guy who has experience and understands schemes," Campbell said. "I wasn't really surprised because I knew he could play. But the way he's come in is huge. He really is this year's John Abraham."