Before NFL teams get to compete for real, they spend countless sweaty hours on practice fields across the country.
Here is everything you need to know as the Patriots prepare to open training camp at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough:
Rookies report: Sunday, July 21
Veterans report: Wednesday, July 24
First practice open to the public: Thursday, July 25, 9:15 a.m.
Other announced practice dates: July 26-27, 9:15 a.m. (time subject to change).
Joint practice dates: New England won’t hold any joint practices at home this year.
Preseason opener: at Detroit, Thursday, Aug. 8, 7:30 p.m.
Season opener: vs. Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 8, 8:20 p.m.
New season, new faces
The defending Super Bowl champions are back with a bevy of fresh faces, highlighted by veteran free agent signings Demaryius Thomas and Michael Bennett along with first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry. Here’s a quick rundown of New England’s rookies and newcomers:
Jake Bailey, P, Stanford; Andrew Beck, TE, Texas; Nick Brossette, RB, LSU; Yodny Cajuste, OT, West Virginia; Byron Cowart, DT, Maryland; Ryan Davis, WR, Auburn; Hjalte Froholdt, OG, Arkansas; Malik Gant, S, Marshall; Tyler Gauthier, C, Miami; Terez Hall, LB, Missouri; Damien Harris, RB, Alabama; N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State; Jakob Johnson, FB, Tennessee; Gunner Olszewski, WR, Bemidji State; D’Angelo Ross, CB, New Mexico; Tyree St. Louis, OT, Miami; Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn; Ken Webster, CB, Mississippi; Joejuan Williams, CB, Vanderbilt; Chase Winovich, DE, Michigan.
Michael Bennett, DE; Brandon Bolden, RB; Terrence Brooks, S; Shilique Calhoun, DE; Jamie Collins, LB; Maurice Harris, WR; Dontrelle Inman, WR; Matt LaCosse, TE; David Parry, DT; Mike Pennel, DT; Dan Skipper, OT; Demaryius Thomas, WR; Benjamin Watson, TE.
How to watch training camp
It can be easy to lose track of the action, but Patriots practices can be fascinating if you pay close attention. Which players are winning position battles? Which combinations are the coaches using on the offensive line and in the secondary? Which undrafted rookie is standing out? Which esoteric game scenario is Bill Belichick working on repeatedly?
We’ve developed a guide for tips on how to watch practice. Here’s the cheat sheet:
1. Weekdays offer better access; 2. Pick a low vantage point for individual drills, and a high one for team drills; 3. Memorize the roster and jersey numbers; 4. Watch Belichick — a lot; 5. Take notes on the positional pairings and combinations; 6. Grade the one-on-one battles, and be descriptive; 7. Take note of game situations; 8. Listen to what the coaches are telling the players.
Who’s in contention: Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman, Jakobi Meyers, Damoun Patterson, Braxton Berrios, Ryan Davis, Gunner Olszewski, Demaryius Thomas, Josh Gordon.
Quick hits: Some of these are literally huge additions, as Thomas, Harris, and Xavier Ubosi all are 6 feet 3 inches while Harry and Meyers check in at 6-2. Edelman and Harry are the only apparent locks to make the final 53, so the competition in this group figures to be the most heated and entertaining all the way through the dog days of August.
Key question: Will Gordon (he’s 6-3, too) ever return?
Don’t forget about: Berrios. A sixth-rounder last year, he spent the season on injured reserve. This is an opportunity to show he can provide slot and return-man depth.
Who’s in contention: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling, Jarrett Stidham.
Quick hits: The clipboard competition behind Brady (we’re just going to go ahead and pencil him as the starter) should be fun.
Hoyer is a total pro, whose work as the scout-team quarterback drew rave reviews from his teammates. Etling was on the practice squad all season but clearly is well thought of, as he traveled for road games. The Patriots used a fourth-round pick on Stidham, who played at Auburn and Baylor.
Key question: Will the Patriots keep three quarterbacks on the active roster and try to stash Etling and/or Stidham on the practice squad?
Interesting to note: Stidham has measurables comparable to Jimmy Garoppolo, including size and Combine numbers. Not drawing any conclusions here, just an observation.
Who’s in contention: Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Stephen Anderson, Ryan Izzo, Andrew Beck.
Quick hits: Watson will be suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The Patriots could get away with carrying just a pair of tight ends until Watson returns because they don’t use a ton of traditional three-tight end sets, and when they do, they usually employ an extra tackle to serve as a jumbo tight end in heavy packages.
Who’s in contention: Michael Bennett, Mike Pennel, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Danny Shelton, Keionta Davis, Ufomba Kamalu, Deatrich Wise, John Simon, Derek Rivers, Shilique Calhoun, Trent Harris, Nick Thurman, David Parry, Byron Cowart, Chase Winovich.
Quick hits: New England values versatility in all its position groupings, and that’s especially true on the defensive line, where guys play multiple positions and fill multiple roles — not only from game to game but from play to play. As always, the Patriots will feature multiple looks and packages, but if they shift to more of a 3-4 base — and there was some evidence of that during minicamp — Bennett and Pennel will be counted on to be stalwarts as the team figures out a rotation around the newcomers.
Who’s in contention: Ryan Allen, Jake Bailey.
Quick hits: If there’s such thing as a battle-tested punter, Allen is it. Now he has another one on his hands. The veteran southpaw, who unseated incumbent Zoltan Mesko back in 2013 and emerged victorious in his colossal kicking competition against Corey Bojorquez last summer, will square off against fifth-round pick Bailey, the nation’s top collegian. Economics could play a role here, as Allen’s new deal is for just one season.
■ Fans usually sing “Happy Birthday” to Tom Brady on Aug. 3 (He’ll turn 42 this year). One year, offensive lineman and Patriots Hall of Famer Matt Light even smushed cake in Brady’s face.
■ The rookies, at some point, go through a muddy slip-n-slide. The equipment workers soak a back corner of the field, and rookies must dive into the slop while being hosed down by a veteran (usually Brady).
■ After each practice session, a position group (or two, depending on how many players are in each position group) spends time signing autographs for fans.
■ Parking and admission are free. Practices are on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
■ The schedule throughout training camp is tentative and subject to change. Fans planning to attend practice should check Patriots.com for daily updates or call the training camp hotline at 508-549-0001.
■ When the Patriots are forced to practice indoors because of inclement weather or poor field conditions, practices will be closed to the public.
■ There are concessions positioned around the practice fields and the Patriots Fan Zone, including exhibits from the Patriots Hall of Fame.
■ Prohibited items: Animals (except service animals assisting those with disabilities), alcohol, beach balls, bullhorns and air horns, coolers, fireworks or pyrotechnics, helium balloons, illegal drugs or any other illegal substances, laser pens, noise makers, video cameras, weapons of any kind (including knives), unmanned aircraft systems, remotely controlled model aircraft, selfie sticks, and GoPro cameras. Flags will be allowed, however flagpoles more than 2 feet in length will not be allowed.
■ From Boston and farther north: Take I-95 South to Exit 9. Follow Route 1 south approximately 3 miles to Gillette Stadium (on the left).
■ From Cape Cod: Take I-495 North to Exit 14A. Follow Route 1 north about 4 miles to Gillette Stadium (on the right).
■ From southern Connecticut, Rhode Island: Take I-95 North to I-495 North to Exit 14A. Follow Route 1 north about 4 miles to Gillette Stadium (on the right).
■ From northern Connecticut, Vermont, upstate New York: Take I-90 East to I-495 South to Exit 14A. Follow Route 1 north about 4 miles to Gillette Stadium (on the right).
Key league dates
July 15: Deadline for any club that designated a franchise player to sign such a player to a multiyear contract or extension.
July 23: Signing period ends for unrestricted free agents to whom a “May 8 tender” was made by prior club.
July 23: Signing period ends for transition players with outstanding tenders.
Aug. 1: Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons.
Aug. 6: Deadline for players under contract to report to their clubs to earn an accrued season for free agency.
Aug. 6: If a drafted rookie has not been signed by this date, he can’t be traded this season.
Aug. 31: Rosters cut to 53 on active/inactive list by 4 p.m. EST.
Aug. 31: Players on PUP or non-football-injury lists must move from active to reserve.
Sept. 1: The claiming period for players on waivers will expire at 12 p.m.
Sept. 1: After 1 p.m. EST, practice squads of 10 can be formed.
Sept. 5: Season opener, Packers at Bears.
Sept. 8: Patriots home opener vs Pittsburgh and Super Bowl LIII championship banner ceremony, 8:20 p.m.
Globe writer Jim McBride contributed to this guide. Dan Shulman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.