By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Professional football can't be played in gym shorts. That wouldn't be safe. Even if you spring for helmets and shoulder pads. As players are often quick to say during offseason workouts, it's not "real football" until you're practicing in full pads.
That day arrives for the Patriots on Saturday in Foxborough, when the Super Bowl champs will follow up two noticeably light training camp practices with a jump to full contact. For Bill Belichick, it'll be his first real opportunity to evaluate the development of his roster, particularly in more physical areas like line play and the running game. For the players, it's the first chance to play closer to the gear of an actual game.
That first crunch of the pads happened earlier and much more often before 2011, when the new CBA dialed things back significantly. But for a lot of players, limited padded practices and the elimination of two-a-days at the pro level have seemingly made them crave it more.
"You look forward to putting them on of course, and get some contact going," said running back Rex Burkhead on Friday. "As a running back, something that we have to be able to do is break tackles and make people miss. For the most part, from the spring until now it's been more of a passing emphasis just because you can't hit or anything.
"I'm just looking forward to getting physical. That's the game of football, it's a physical game and really just getting pads on pads."
There's really no way to physically prepare for the leap from shells and walkthroughs to pads and car crashes. It's more about mentally preparing, morphing into a game day mindset. Defensive end Keionta Davis is just making sure he doesn't lose sight of the details.
"Definitely the physical part is the hardest part to get back into," Davis said Friday. "But you still have to remember, it's the same things you've been doing, and just add another element to it. It's part of getting ready for the season, just stacking more things onto it. For me it's just being rested, getting ready mentally, and don't let the physical aspect overwhelm the fundamentals and things like that."
If you could bet on the first Patriot to crack a thunderous hit on a ball carrier in competitive drills, safety Patrick Chung would be a safe bet. But he practiced the first two days in a red non-contact jersey and doesn't appear ready for full-bore football in his recovery from arm and shoulder surgeries. There are other candidates to set that tone.
Second-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley described himself as "a thumper, definitely a physical football player" a year ago, when he spoke with local reporters for the first time after the Patriots drafted him. Now in his second year and healthy after a torn bicep ended his rookie season early, Bentley isn't pigeonholing himself. Even as he gets his first chance to thump someone.
"I said a lot of things as a rookie, but I feel you just come out here and do whatever they need you to do," Bentley said Thursday. "I don't do labels. I don't put labels on myself. The sky's the limit for everybody out here. You just go out here and find what you work best at and the coaches will put you in the right position to make plays."
Regardless, Bentley certainly hopes to be in position to get physical. Patriots up and down the roster are feeling the itch as they've gotten closer to day one of full pads. Bentley knows how excited he and his teammates are for Saturday.
"Aren't we all?"
Matt Dolloff is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].