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There's a 'massive dude' taking on valuable role for Packers' stretch run

Dennis Kelly is this year’s late-season, veteran sub at right tackle 

T Dennis Kelly
T Dennis Kelly

GREEN BAY – It's become a recurring injury storyline in the Matt LaFleur era.

Not just regarding injuries in general, but with a specific position, and a particular type of remedy.

As Billy Turner went down with a knee injury last week, right tackle suddenly became a precarious spot once again for the Packers late in the year with a lot on the line.

But it isn't being filled by just any "next man up." In this instance, as was the case two years ago with Jared Veldheer and then last year with Rick Wagner, the substitute stepping forward is a veteran of significant NFL experience.

Packer Nation, meet Dennis Kelly. Signed in late July as a potential hedge against David Bakhtiari's long-term recovery at left tackle, he's now taking over at right tackle for as long as Turner is out, the hope being it's not for the duration of the season, but it could be.

LaFleur calls Kelly "the consummate pro," while offensive line coach Adam Stenavich refers to him more simply as "a massive dude," which is practically an understatement.

At 6-foot-8 and 321 pounds, Kelly entered the league as a fifth-round draft pick of Philadelphia's in 2012. He started 10 games as a rookie but then due to injuries and other circumstances became in essence a career backup and spot starter, until he started every game for Tennessee last year at right tackle.

Upon coming to Green Bay, he was planning to compete for a starting job, or at least play more by now given all the injuries up front. But a back injury of his own kept him out quite a while, and by the time he got past it, Turner was playing a rock solid right tackle while the young (and equally massive) Yosh Nijman had established himself as a viable option at left tackle.

Kelly understood it all, conceding "it's hard to get mad" when teammates are playing well. So he shifted his mindset to pre-2020, that backup mentality, and waited to see if he might get called upon.

"It's been a challenging year, personally," Kelly said this week. "Played a lot last year, thought I played well, came in here hoping to be a starter and dealt with some injuries early on.

"The offense is rolling and you kind of accept your role and kind of just wait 'til it's your turn. Unfortunately, when you're the backup, your turn is rarely in a good situation."

Those situations have arisen the last two years at right tackle for the Packers as well.

Prior to the 2019 NFC Divisional playoff game vs. Seattle, Bryan Bulaga came down with a nasty flu bug and was a pregame scratch. Enter 10-year vet Veldheer, who helped the Packers survive and advance.

Then last year, various injury-related lineup shuffles up front led to Wagner, an eighth-year pro, taking over at right tackle with five games left in the regular season, and the Packers didn't lose until the NFC title game.

There's a level of comfort knowing once again the guy coming off the bench has a lengthy NFL track record. Sunday in Baltimore will be Kelly's 48th career start.

He stepped in late in the second quarter last week when Turner exited, and to his credit, nobody really noticed. Other than being conscientious of the first couple of play calls to get him settled in, LaFleur said nothing with the offensive approach needed to be altered.

"He's had experience with me coming in and not having to change the game plan, change the play-calling, do something drastic," said Kelly of LaFleur, his former offensive coordinator at Tennessee in 2018 who needed him under similar circumstances then to enter the middle of the game and then start a few.

"So perhaps that's kind of what he fell back on."

Not that it was easy to come in cold having not played for the season's first three months, the longest layoff of Kelly's career. He admitted to the typical nerves, but they dissipated after the first snap, and rookie right guard Royce Newman said the adjustment went smoothly from his perspective because they've practiced a fair amount side by side since Kelly got healthy.

"I've been able to go out on the field off the sideline and kind of not have a hiccup," Kelly said. "That's probably one of the biggest prides I take, is we don't miss a beat if I have to go in."

The value of that, especially this time of year for a team chasing a championship, is immeasurable. Twenty-five years ago, the Packers turned to a 10-year vet with 90 NFL starts to his name at the time, Bruce Wilkerson, at left tackle in the regular-season finale, and he held down the blindside fort the rest of the way through Super Bowl XXXI.

Time, and Turner's health, will tell whether Kelly goes down in Packers lore alongside Veldheer and Wagner, or more like Wilkerson. Either way, this team has been here before and made it work.

"I'm just going to play as long and as hard as I can until they tell me not to," Kelly said. "I'm going to try to protect our guys and clean piles and make sure there's no cheap hits, and try to just do what I can to help the team."

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