Of the dozen or so free agents signed by New England, the biggest enigma may well be free agent Rob Kelly.
He readily admits that there isn't a whole lot of information floating around about him, save for what he provides on his own web site, www.robkelly.com. As a second-round pick in 1997 out of Ohio State, Kelly has the talent to play in the NFL, yet he walked away from the game before the 2001 season. This despite having contract offers available in the free agent market.
Kelly is somewhat of a free spirit. Intuition and gut feelings determine his path in life, and after time away from the gridiron, he firmly believes he has a home here in New England. Asked what he liked about the Patriots in particular, he was both blunt and matter-of-fact in stating, "Well, they had a pretty good year last season."
More to the point, Kelly feels he has found a fit for his game. In watching the way the defense works, particularly the secondary, he sees the way he feels football was meant to be played.
"I like the way the safeties are involved with the defense. I like how they have them blitzing a lot and playing aggressive, instead of getting back in their heels," Kelly said. "I go out there and bust my ass every play. I don't go out there and not play hard. I am a vocal leader, and I like to go out there, get fired up and have fun."
Kelly's way of thinking falls right in line with what Head Coach Bill Belichick is always preaching. Before signing with the team, he spoke with friend and former Ohio State teammate Mike Vrabel, who joined the team as a free agent last offseason.
"Mike [Vrabel] told me about how the season was and how the coaches worked," Kelly said. "He was excited and obviously had a great year last year. He basically said it was a lot like the experience we had at Ohio State. It was a team of good guys, coaches and players willing to work."
As much as Kelly looks forward to getting back into the game, he didn't miss football when the 2001 season began without him. Though he wouldn't go into detail because he is leaving the past behind, four years in New Orleans jaded Kelly to the point where he walked away from the game he had played the previous 20 years.
"I didn't watch much football at all last year," Kelly said. "I just chilled out and took the year off and tried to relax. Being in New Orleans just kind of sapped the love of the game out of me. I kind of let that happen, but I wanted to get that feeling back, that love for the game. I got it back, and fortunately the Patriots are giving me the opportunity to try and give it another go.
During Kelly's tenure in New Orleans, the Saints struggled for the most part, posting a 25-39 record from 1997-2000. The final season was the most successful, with a 10-6 campaign under new coach Jim Haslett earning the team a wild card spot and a first-round victory over St. Louis.
Even though Kelly battled back from a broken leg in the preseason to play 12 games and contribute to the success, his spirit wasn't where he wanted it to be.
"I didn't miss [football] at all," Kelly said. "When I went to sign with Seattle last March or April, I just couldn't sign. I didn't feel like I could give them 100 percent. It didn't feel like my heart was into it. I told myself that if the game wasn't fun, I wasn't going to play any more. The money thing is great, but I definitely play football because I enjoy doing it. It just wasn't fun anymore.
"As the year went along last year, I started thinking about it more. The feeling starting coming back, and building and building. I decided I was ready to go again. I was reinvigorated and excited to go again."
The early interactions Kelly had with his new teammates helped feed the excitement. In guys like Vrabel, fellow safety Tebucky Jones and special teams captain Larry Izzo, Kelly has found players who bring a non-nonsense, all-out attitude to the field.
"I missed it," Kelly said. "I missed the camaraderie, the learning and going out on the field to bust your ass for guys who you care about. Those are the reasons I want to play again. I want to go out there and prove to myself that I can do it again too."
He'll have his work cut out for him, but there are open spots in both the secondary and special teams. New England already lost safety Matt Stevens and cornerback Terrance Shaw and doesn't appear to have Terrell Buckley coming back. All three were key as extra backs in nickel and dime packages, as well as contributors in the kicking game.
For now, Kelly is enjoying being back in football. He is part of a winning team right now, but it's also a team willing to put in the work and effort needed to win again. The game is much different now than it was just a short two seasons ago, and thus far the change is for the better.
"It's nice to see guys who have their attitudes up," Kelly said. "It's different than being down in New Orleans coming off a 6-10 season. Our first year there I forget what we were, but it was awful. But it just seems like the attitude is really high here.
"The one different thing that I have noticed is that you walk around the locker room and guys don't have their heads down. They are walking up to me and introducing themselves and being friendly. That is something that I was not used to. It's been nice to come in here and feel like I was part of a team already. It just really made me feel like this was my home."