FOXBORO – Training camp is an animal all its own, especially when it comes to physical play.
Players spend hours squaring off against teammates – often the same few teammates time and time again – and frustration mounts as a byproduct of their simmering competitiveness.
Making sure that frustration doesn’t boil over from acceptable physicality into a let-me-rearrange-the-bars-on-your-face-mask dispute is a complicated and unpredictable dance. There is no clear line separating one from the other.
Brandon Browner and Kenbrell Thompkins precariously toed around a danger zone during Wednesday’s camp session. In consecutive one-on-one reps they each took their shots: Thompkins throwing Browner to the ground first and then Browner returning the favor.
Though Browner carried his frustration over into an exchange with receivers coach Chad O’Shea, whatever he and Thompkins had going appeared squelched as soon as the drill was done.
“Just competing,” Thompkins said. “Day 5 or 6 in camp, things get a little heated up but that's part of the game. It's a competitive sport and we're all out there just trying to help each other get better.”
Thompkins is only in his second training camp, but he knows that whatever occurs on the field can’t be bottled up to be used later. This time of year is a constant exercise in letting go.
“At the end of the day we're all friends,” Thompkins said. “We all sit in the same locker room, we all walk through the same locker room, eat meals together and everything. At the end of the day, it’s just a competitive sport and we all try to make each other better.”
He added: “We have another six hours together [after practice]. Hopefully we can crack a couple jokes later.”
Players agree it’s important to co-exist peacefully as a team, but at the same time there’s work to be done and improvements to be made. For some people – like Browner, whose game is predicated on being a physically-imposing corner – there’s no other way to play than a way that’s going to irk his offensive teammates.
"I need to be liked by my teammates," he said. "Those are the guys I'm gonna go to war with. But at the same time, I'm gonna be aggressive with those guys. It's going to make those guys better. And I hope they bring the same fire back at me."
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower appreciates his new teammate's style on the outside - even if it's not making him many friends in camp.
"That's part of intimidation," Hightower said of Browner. "He's had that whenever he was at Seattle and even before that. That's his style of play. Whenever, as a guy, you're a receiver and you're watching film and you see him rag-dolling guys around and choking guys out at the line of scrimmage, that's intimidation. You strike fear into them. That's definitely a trait that he's had, and he's definitely using it."
But what about that line? Any trepidation of crossing it?
"That's how he practice," Hightower said. "You don't see him or [Darrelle] Revis not jamming or stopping on stuff. You don't see Tom [Brady] throwing interceptions. That's part of their craft. You practice how you play. Obviously if that's how he practices, that's how he practices. He's done it on the field so I don't see why there's a problem."
That may be easy to say for a fellow defender. But if you're one of those receivers getting rag-dolled in a drill where there aren't any officials to throw flags, you may have an issue. It's something the Patriots will have to deal with during Thursday and Friday night's practices as they continue to take reps against one another.
Starting next week they'll be down in Richmond, Virginia for joint practices with the Redskins, where they'll finally be able to beat up on some fresh faces.
"It gets frustrating going against the same guys everyday," Browner said. "I'm ready to get down to Waswhington and see what I can do against those guys."