FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots are used to hard-hitting practices under coach Bill Belichick. Now they — and he —must adjust to less contact under the NFL’s new labor agreement.
Fewer colliding shoulder pads. Not as many battles for passes. More time to get acclimated to playing football after a 4 1/2-month lockout
The agreement allows just one practice with pads each day. New England and many other teams regularly had two. With just two weeks of training camp before their first exhibition game, the Patriots must prepare differently.
They open camp on Thursday with two practices without pads on each of the first two days. On Saturday, they can haul out the heavier equipment.
“I like hitting,” safety Patrick Chung said with a laugh. Less practicing with pads “definitely saves your body. You get a little more health and it helps you go for longer and longer. You can go harder during practice. Just because there’s not two padded practices doesn’t mean you have to not go hard for the first one.”
First stringers may not play as much as they usually do in the preseason opener, when the Patriots face the Jacksonville Jaguars at home on Aug. 11. With preseason rosters expanded to 90 players, coaches should have plenty of personnel without overworking the regulars.
But all players should be healthier since there were no organized team activities, rookie camps and minicamps.
“We haven’t had OTAs or anything like that,” wide receiver Wes Welker said, “so there shouldn’t be any excuses about anybody not being fresh and ready to go.”
Players began arriving at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday for voluntary conditioning and other activities. Among those who showed up were quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Deion Branch, running back Danny Woodhead, tight end Rob Gronkowski, Chung and Welker.
All players were required to report by Wednesday, when they underwent physicals and took part in the annual pre-camp running conditioning test.
Welker, who is returning from major offseason knee surgery last training camp, said he feels as well as he ever has entering camp.
“Time will tell,” he said, “but I think the main thing is you’re going to find out whether guys have been putting in the work or not. So we’ll definitely see during the run test … where everybody’s at and where we’re going to go from here.”
Chung worked out at a local facility during the lockout. Welker went to Los Angeles and played catch with Brady.
“Going back into it, you’ve got to slow yourself into it,” Chung said. “But I’m pretty confident guys are working out.”
But what about the rookies? They have a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time.
Chung, drafted by the Patriots in the second round in 2009, has some advice for them.
“If you come in focused, ready to go, pay attention, listen to the veteran guys that know what they’re doing, it can be an easy transition,” he said. “Or it can be very hard for you. It all depends on what they want to do, and the veterans are going to help them get to where we need them to be so we can all play as a team.”
All scheduled preseason games will be played except for the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 7 between the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams in Canton, Ohio.
The Patriots follow their game against the Jaguars with two road games at Tampa Bay on Aug. 18 and Detroit on Aug. 27. They wrap up their preseason schedule at home against the New York Giants on Sept. 1 and open the regular season at the Miami Dolphins in a Monday night game on Sept. 12.
By then, no matter how much or how little hitting they’ve done, the Patriots, led by Belichick, should be ready.
“It’s all about coming in and being focused and knowing that we don’t have much time,” Chung said. “We’re going to work hard, and Bill’s going to make sure that happens, and the leaders on the team are going to make sure it happens.”