One of the underlying themes throughout the run of success the Patriots have had over the last four seasons revolves around lesser-known players stepping up when an opportunity to perform presents itself. Guys like Tom Ashworth, Matt Chatham, Patrick Pass and Randall Gay, among handfuls of others, have turned fill-in roles into on-field production that has keyed three Super Bowl championships in four seasons.
When a guy goes down to injury, or at this point in the offseason when a guy is released, someone else on the depth chart gets the chance to move up a notch. With Wednesday's release of veteran nose tackle Keith Traylor, who started 10 of 16 games played a year ago, third-year nose tackle prospect Ethan Kelley knows the door could be open for a guy who has spent most of the last two seasons as a 2003 practice squad player and 2004 day-of-game inactive.
No one needs to tell the 6-2, 330-pound Kelley that like so many others before him this may be his time to step up.
"I don't think they have to go out and tell you," Kelley said of the would-be chance. "It's there for me to see. It's an opportunity and I have to make the most of it."
In trying to take advantage of the opportunity that now presents itself, Kelley is armed with knowledge he's tried to soak up from veterans like Traylor in his two-plus seasons in the New England locker room.
"He kind of showed me the ropes," Kelley said of his time with Traylor. "He's a veteran. He's been in the league a long time and had a wealth of knowledge. For me to not tap into that would not be wise or smart on my part."
That knowledge, combined with plenty of work on the practice field, in the film room and in the weight room over the last two seasons gives Kelley confidence heading toward his third training camp in New England.
"I think every year I have made progress just as far as becoming more of a student of the game," Kelley said following a recent workout at Gillette Stadium. "I think I have the physical tools. It's just more about the mental and the technique.
"It's like night and day from college. In college I got by on my athletic ability."
Kelley got his first taste of action in last year's season finale against the 49ers, recording a single tackle in action along the defensive line. In 2006, Kelley hopes to be among a herd of young, talented Patriots defensive linemen that includes three former first-round picks in Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, as well as Jarvis Green, Rodney Bailey and Marquise Hill. As the only other true nose tackle type on the roster other than Wilfork, there is a good chance Kelley will be a key player in the mix in the middle of the defense for the defending champs.
But even if this potential opportunity to play and contribute in New England doesn't materialize as Kelley hopes, and to some degree expects, the former seventh-round pick doesn't regret the behind the scenes work he's put in during the early stages of his professional career.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," Kelley said of the last two years. "For one, coming from Baylor I won maybe 10 games my whole career there. I do that in one season here. So like I said it's a night and day difference and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Make no mistake about it though, his goal is to get on the field more often this fall and makes plays.
"If you are not working toward that, then what are you doing," Kelley questioned. "That's what I try for every year, is to get on the field and just contribute and help the team in any way that I can."