By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com Celtics Insider
FOXBORO A year ago this time, New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty was just another highly touted rookie draft pick looking to prove his worth.
The first signs that McCourty might be able to contribute in a meaningful way came during the early days when the Patriots opened camp with full contact practices.
Fast forward to 2011.
This is a new season, and a new Patriots team operating under a new set of rules following the recently agreed upon Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and the owners.
Among the most noticeable changes on Day 1 was the shoulder pad-less players during the morning session.
The days of full contact, two-a-day practices are a thing of the past, with teams not allowed to have multiple practices in pads on the same day during the preseason. Once the regular season begins, teams can only practice once a week in pads for the first 11 weeks, and three practices with pads over the final five weeks.
"To be honest, whatever the rules are, they are and I'm willing to do it any way," said Patriots linebacker Jerrod Mayo. "Two-a-days, three-a-days, whatever."
Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch added, "the biggest thing is we understand the situation. We gotta deal with it. We're just going to move forward and get ready for the season."
For veterans like Branch, it's not that big of a deal.
The physical pounding of two-a-day practices doesn't do him or any of his experienced brethren any good.
The same cannot be said for younger players.
It's not unusual for a player to look so-so in walk-thru sessions, only to shine when lights are bright and the pads are strapped.
In addition, fewer full contact practices also means fewer opportunities to simulate what they'll experience in real games, which adds another degree of difficulty to the evaluation process.
"We're just kind of taking it hour by hour," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "I wouldn't even say day-by-day yet; just one step at a time, try to get through practice and try to get everything up and running."
And when you throw in the fact that young players and rookies had less time to work together due to the labor stalemate between players and owners, it makes it all that much tougher for young players to make an immediate impact.
McCourty, whose seven interceptions last season as a rookie was the second-highest total for a rookie in Patriots history, acknowledged that simulating the physical bump-and-grind of Sundays without hitting as much in practice, will be challenging.
"That's a challenge each year, but that's part of being a pro," McCourty told CSNNE.com. "How to go a long practice, get better without getting that physical wear and tear on your body. You always have to go through that as a player. The season's are long, so you can't come out here and kill each other every day. As a pro, you have to get better without always the physical, grueling part."
Before, this was an option.
But with the new rules for contact in practice, McCourty and the rest of the Patriots have no choice in the matter.
"I'm just playing football," McCourty said. "That's what I did last year; just go out and play football. Go out and don't worry about anything else."