FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Welcome to what is becoming, in many ways, the new NFL preseason.
Technically, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles will square off in their opening exhibition game on Friday at Lincoln Financial Field. But the more productive work for both teams, in the eyes of a growing number of coaches and players, will take place in the days leading up to the game when the teams combine for joint practices.
Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork initially was skeptical about these types of practices, which coach Bill Belichick started scheduling on a regular basis in 2010. Now he's a convert.
"When I first heard that we were doing them, I was like 'that's not going to go,'" Wilfork recalled Monday before players packed their bags for Philadelphia. "But when we started doing it, I told Bill, 'This is something I really think we get a lot out of.' You're still getting the work that you need, but you're not banging against one another."
The idea of breaking up the monotony of training camp is part of what Wilfork said makes it such a positive experience. The competition level also rises to the point where Wilfork believes he easily gets more out of the practices than the preseason game itself.
"Oh, absolutely," the 10-year veteran declared. "You get a bunch of reps, you get to see different things, different looks, some looks you get in the game, some looks you don't because of the amount of time we play. Who knows [how much] we'll play?"
Top players such as Wilfork traditionally don't play much in the preseason opener -- maybe a series or two. But players compete from start to finish in controlled joint practices, which became part of the Patriots' preseason routine in 2010 when the New Orleans Saints came to town to try it out. Belichick later said the practices were among the most productive he's had in his coaching career, and the Patriots traveled to Atlanta for a similar setup with the Falcons that same year.
Joint practices weren't an option in 2011 because of the lockout, but the Patriots picked things back up last year by hosting the Saints again and traveling to Tampa Bay.
This year, they'll follow up their trip to Philadelphia (practices scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and tentatively Thursday) by entertaining Greg Schiano's Buccaneers next week for similar practices.
Part of what Belichick appreciates about the practices is unpredictability. While he's spent time speaking with first-year Eagles coach Chip Kelly about the practice itinerary, once the ball is snapped, the action is something that truly can't be duplicated if the Patriots were practicing against themselves.
"We have to react to what they do, just like in-game situations, and vice versa. I think that will be good for the players [and] the coaches. We'll have to make adjustments down there," Belichick said. "They [have] a new coaching staff, new scheme, new system, some new players. We're not doing a whole lot of scouting and preparation for them. We'll just see what we get out there. We'll have to react to it and adjust to it, but that will be good for us."
The Patriots arrived in Philadelphia around 5 p.m. ET on Monday after they held a light practice at Gillette Stadium. Before departing, players seemed excited for the change up, with Wilfork saying the Eagles are a "young team, new head coach, [and] they're coming in with a little swagger that [Kelly] brings from college."
"Going to Philly is going to be a great opportunity to try your stuff against someone else," receiver Julian Edelman said. "I've only been out here a few days, but the few days you're out here, you're going against guys that you've played against for a few years now. They know your techniques and you know theirs, and it's kind of an ongoing battle with that. When you get to see someone new, you get to try things and put your technique and fundamentals to the test. It's going to be fun."
"We're all ready to go, we're all ready to hit somebody else besides our own guys," receiver Danny Amendola added. "Everybody will kind of get the gist of what it is to go against other guys and other defenses and read coverages and stuff like that. It's going to be a learning process for everybody."
Not to mention a measuring stick of sorts.
"Any time you can go against someone other than your teammates, it's always a good measurement of where you are," Wilfork said. "It won't be perfect, [but] it's going to be a pretty good indicator of where we're at as a team and as individuals. We still have four more games, almost a month left, to buckle things down to where we need to be, but this is a step."