FOXBORO -- They all are members of a club they'd rather not be a part of.
Will Smith, Tommy Kelly and Dominique Easley suffered ACL tears over the last year, all of which brought a premature end to their 2013 seasons. With the Saints, Smith was hurt in the preseason. Kelly went down in early October. And Easley suffered his torn ACL -- the second of his career -- in his final collegiate season at Florida.
But it’s not just those three who are attempting to come back from season-ending injuries. While Vince Wilfork’s issue was an Achilles instead of a torn ACL, he’s also part of any discussion that involves veteran defensive linemen trying to bounce back in 2014. That’s four individuals who could make up a key part of New England’s defensive front, all trying to find redemption in their return to the field this fall.
While it’s impossible to gauge where Easley is at this stage of his development -- to this point, the work he has been doing has been out of the watchful eye of the media at the minicamp and OTA sessions -- what’s a realistic level of expectation for the trio of veterans in 2014? History tells us that the odds of a defensive lineman over the age of 30 returning from a season-ending injury aren’t always great.
However, one thing all three have in their favor is the fact that all of them have shown an impressive level of durability over the course of their pro careers. Kelly played 16 games in seven of the previous eight seasons prior to his injury in 2013. Wilfork played in 16 games in seven of his first nine years in the NFL. And Smith played in at least 14 games a year since he arrived in the NFL in 2004. There was no indication that they were close to breaking down permanently prior to their injuries.
To this point in the offseason, both Smith and Kelly appear to be moving well. If they continue to progress, they appear to be on track as contributors in 2014, at least on a part-time basis. Meanwhile, Wilfork appeared to fundamentally graduate out of a rehab group over the course of the OTAs, and was working with the rest of the defensive linemen at minicamp on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Smith’s arrival in New England fills the annual “veteran defensive line acquisition” quota that the Patriots seem drawn to every year. Going back for the last decade-plus, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been drawn to veteran defensive linemen on the back nine of their careers, all of whom are interested in playing deep into January. It’s a group that’s included Kelly, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth, Steve Martin, Ted Washington, Keith Traylor, Bobby Hamilton and Anthony Pleasant.
For his part, Smith is a well-regarded veteran who has 67.5 career sacks in his 10 years with the Saints, including six or more sacks in seven of nine seasons played. It’s one reason Belichick and the Patriots believe that despite last year’s injury, Smith has more Carter and Kelly in him than Haynesworth or Martin.
“I think his productivity as a player and his career is pretty well-documented -- we’ll see how he can do going forward,” Belichick said in May when asked about Smith, shortly after the Patriots signed him. “It’s different -- but similar -- to Tommy Kelly’s situation last year. Tommy wasn’t coming off an injury last year like Will is this year, but similar – [he’s a] productive player that we feel like still has some good football left but is probably in the back half of their career. We’ll see where Will is able to get to.”
The veterans are enormously aware of the fact that they have a long way to go between now and the start of the season, but both Smith and Kelly expressed optimism that their rehab has progressed to a satisfactory point. Part of that optimism can be seen in the fact that all three have found common ground as it relates to their situation -- they’re all acutely aware of the challenges they face in coming back after spending a year away from the field.
“We’re all competitors,” the 6-foot-3, 282-pound Smith said Wednesday. “It’s good to see Vince out there busting his butt, Tommy out there busting his butt, trying to get back. We all kind of try and encourage each other. We all came into the league at the same time and all followed each other’s careers, and we’re all excited to be playing with each other now.
“I’ve known Vince since college -- we played [Miami] in the national championship,” said Smith, an Ohio State product. “I’ve always followed his career. Always thought he was a great player. And always would have loved to play with him, and now I get that opportunity this year.”
For Smith, the 2014 season represents a chance to start anew on a couple of levels. He’s not only interested in showing people he’s back to 100 percent after the injury, he’s embracing the challenge of doing with a new team.
“I’m excited,” Smith said when asked about his return to the field. “I’ve played football for the last 15, 16 years. Last year was a little tough, not being able to be out there and play because I was hurt. But it’s exciting to be back during OTAs and now minicamp and being a part of stuff.
“I’ve been used to going out and competing every single day and playing and being involved and being part of a team. Last year was kind of a little bit different not being able to do that. But that’s something that’s in the past, and I’m just looking forward to the future now and being able to come out now in minicamp and OTAs and be with the team.”
Smith said Wednesday he’s “feeling pretty good” about where he is at this point in the offseason, echoing the optimistic tone from Kelly on Tuesday.
“I’ve had a full day of practice -- [the knee] doesn’t bother me. I’m ready to go,” Smith said.
In the wake of their injuries, one thing that could prolong their careers and keep them fresh for 2014 is to limit their snaps, at least at the start of the season. Given his history, it’s a safe bet that Smith (provided he makes the roster) will be used strictly as a pass-rusher, getting the bulk of his work on third down and other passing situations, while Kelly could transition into a similar situational role. Meanwhile, no one is saying that he’d be able to fill Wilfork’s shoes on a permanent basis quite yet, but as a collegian Easley certainly showed that he has the body type, versatility and overall skill set to work in a role similar to Wilfork.
Regardless of what happens, Smith feels good about his decision to sign with the Patriots. He calls Chandler Jones a “dominant” football player, and is equally upbeat about the state of New England’s defensive line.
“I think it can be awesome,” he said.
If the Patriots can find a way to keep that quartet healthy for the duration of the 2014 season, he just might be right.