Ah, training camp. That special time of year when, as tradition dictates, we all get overly excited about what happens in non-tackling intrasquad scrimmages, one-on-one practice drills, and even warm-ups. It’s the special part of summer when we shamelessly track practice stats. And most important, it’s the cherished time of year when we’re allowed to believe all our favorite team’s players when they tell us they’re in previously-unmatched peak physical condition.
I looked through the news archives to find this year’s class—the players around the league who said they are in "the best shape of their lives," and I threw in another handful whose coaches vouched for them, or at least implied they’re looking better, faster, or stronger than ever heading into 2017. Here's a few of the highlights, and what we might expect if these players and coaches are telling the truth.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Brady is, apparently, the real-life Benjamin Button. The five-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback came into the league as a gangly-lookin’ beanpole in cotton shorts, but over the past 17 years has slowly yet surely gained muscle definition, built up his strength, and improved his flexibility. Plus, he’s not only somehow managed to continually get more handsome, he has, through a Spartan dietary and workout regimen, even figured out how to not feel pain. Or at least manage it much more effectively.
"When I was 25, I was hurting all the time, and I couldn't imagine playing as long as I did," he told reporters in February. "Just because, you know, if your arm hurts everyday when you throw, how can you keep playing? And now, at 39, my arm never hurts and my body never hurts."
It's hard to believe Brady could be in his best shape as he nears 40, but he's never shown signs of slowing down. And if he’s serious about his plan to play another six or seven years, aging backward could certainly help him achieve that goal. It also helps in the short term that his team keeps surrounding him with talent. This offseason, the Patriots went out and got him a new deep threat (Brandin Cooks), a duo of new running backs (Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead), and another talented tight end (Dwayne Allen).
Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots
Speaking of Burkhead, the former Bengals backup running back looks poised to finally get a real shot at the limelight in New England. And he says he’s ready for it, since he just so happens to be in peak physical condition.
"I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life right now, so hopefully that continues," he told the Omaha World-Herald. "My career is just getting started."
Here’s the thing: I actually don’t doubt he’s in the best shape of his life. And I also agree that his career is just getting started. Burkhead’s a talented and versatile back who got caught in a logjam behind Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati, and if he gets more opportunities with the Patriots, I think he’ll play well. The problem, though, is that fellow Patriots backfield mates Dion Lewis, James White, and Gillislee are also pretty versatile and talented too—so we may end up seeing Burkhead go from one playing-time logjam to another.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers hasn’t gone so far as to adopt Brady’s famously strict (read: masochistic) diet, which is made up mostly of vegetables and excludes tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, most fruit, caffeine, alcohol, dairy, and, apparently, strawberries. But Brady did inspire Rodgers to change up his eating habits last year, and this offseason, more importantly, the Packers’ signal-caller cut back on golf. That sacrifice meant more time in the gym, getting his body ready for the upcoming season. The result?
"It’s fun to be 33 and feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve been in starting an offseason program," Rodgers said in April. "As much as I love golf, it’s kind of taken a backseat to my workouts, and I’m light as I’ve been I think ever coming back at this time of the year."
If all this is true, starting the season off in better shape than ever could portend big things for Rodgers, who began last year in a slump before getting hot midway through the season. Considering Rodgers led the NFL in touchdown passes (40) anyway, his ceiling could be a whole lot higher if he starts the year off in midseason form.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Rodgers isn’t the only NFC quarterback to cut pounds over the offseason. With the help of a new nine-meal, 4,800-calorie daily diet, Wilson reported in to camp at 208 pounds—about 17 pounds lighter than the 225 pounds he played at last year, and his body fat percentage is down six points over last year, from 16 percent to 10 percent. That’s great news for people who want to eat nearly 5,000 calories a day and lose weight, and it could also be great news for the Seahawks, who look like they’re getting a sleeker, quicker version of their Pro Bowl quarterback.
"Yeah, he’s pretty slim now, he looks pretty slim," an excited Carroll said on Sunday. "He worked really hard at it. He is excited about it too. This is the lightest he has reported by quite a bit. He is in fantastic shape."
Wilson suffered through ankle and knee injuries last year and registered a career-low 259 rushing yards, but if we’re to believe Carroll when he says that thanks to that offseason diet change, Wilson looks "really fast, quick," we should expect the dynamic playmaker to get back to running all over the yard. If he can return to being that dual-threat passer and runner, the Seahawks offense could take a big step forward in 2017.
Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
It won’t hurt Wilson’s chances of a big year, of course, if Seattle’s defense returns to form after getting Earl Thomas back out on the field. Per Carroll, Thomas looks "as fast and in better condition than he's seen since Year 1 or Year 2." That’s good news, because the Seahawks defense fell apart after Thomas went out in Week 13 with a broken leg.
Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Is there hope that Bryant returns to his double-digit touchdown-catching ways this year? Well, if you take the Cowboys’ big pass catcher at his word, yep.
If that’s true, it’s really saying a lot, because Bryant’s always been one of the most physically dominant and explosive receivers in the game. Even if he is actually in the best shape of his career, though, getting off to a quick start in 2017 isn’t going to be a cakewalk. The Cowboys kick off the year against three straight top-4 pass defenses by DVOA from last year in the Giants, Broncos, and Cardinals. Bryant may underwhelm early on, but don’t be surprised if his numbers blow up in the second half of the season.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Freeman, who is about to enter the last year of his rookie deal, is looking for a big new contract from the Falcons, but there’s no telling when that’s going to come. In the meantime, the Atlanta running back is just working to control what he can control. Namely, getting into the best shape ever.
"I'm not rushing it and I'm not impatient," Freeman said of contract talks in mid-June. "I'm just trying to make sure that my business is right, as far as being in the best shape of my life. Being healthy, stronger, faster and being better at the same time."
Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns last year while catching 54 passes for another 462 yards and two scores, so if he really is stronger and faster, defenses are going to have their hands full this year. But even if offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan hadn’t left to take the head-coaching job in San Francisco, it was always going to be tough for the Falcons to match their incredible offensive output from last year. Freeman may well be in the best shape of his life, but in a committee with Tevin Coleman under a new play-caller in Steve Sarkisian, don’t be too surprised if his numbers regress back to the mean some in 2017.
Dante Fowler, Jacksonville Jaguars
Fowler missed his entire rookie season to an ACL tear, and in his return to action last year, registered just four sacks. He’s still got time to live up to the potential Jacksonville saw in him when the team took him third overall in 2015, but if he underwhelms again this season, we may start seeing the dreaded "bust" label thrown around. The good news for Fowler is, you guessed it, his superlative physical condition going into this season:
"I feel as strong as I’ve ever been, and I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life," he said in May. "I dropped a couple pounds. I’m getting it back. I’m 248 now and trying to be at least 250-255 so I can hold my ground in the trenches and be able to be ready for those offensive linemen."
The added weight and strength should help him against the run, and he should face plenty of one-on-one pass rush situations playing on the same line as Calais Campbell—who, along with Malik Jackson, should command plenty of attention from opposing offensive lines. But this looks like a make-or-break year, and no one’s going to care about the kind of shape he’s in now if he can’t start racking up some sacks.
Solomon Thomas, San Francisco 49ers
Fowler’s not the only former third overall pick who’s in extraordinary shape heading into this season. Thomas, the Niners’ top pick this year, is champing at the bit to get out there and show what he can do in Year 1.
"I’m 276 [pounds] right now and I’m ready to go," Thomas said in June. "I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life and I spent a long time training. I’m ready to go."
Solomon should get plenty of opportunity to showcase his new physical condition this year—he’s already working with the second team in 49ers camp and it won’t be too surprising if he ends up as a starter by the time camp ends.
Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
It’s been a whirlwind offseason for Solomon's veteran teammate. At the combine, new 49ers general manager John Lynch implied the team felt Hyde had yet to play to his potential. In free agency and the draft, San Francisco added running back competition in Tim Hightower and Joe Williams. Then, in late July, there were rumors the 49ers may cut him altogether. Apparently, that combination of events served as motivation. The former Buckeye reported to camp at 228 pounds—the lightest he’s been since high school—and get this, "is in the best shape of [his] life right now." Apparently that weight loss, along with a renewed enthusiasm and work ethic, caught Lynch’s attention.
"What I saw was a guy who was challenged," Lynch told San Francisco radio station KNBR. "We brought in competition at that position and, somewhere along the way this offseason, he flipped a switch. … And all of a sudden, being in the best shape was really important to him. You really see a different body type."
Hyde’s never been short on talent—he did rush for 988 yards and score six touchdowns at 4.6 yards per carry last season—but he’s struggled to stay healthy. If he’s really undergone a body transformation, he may not only do a better job of staying on the field, but he could find himself among the league leaders in rushing this year.
Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Thomas has been working hard this offseason and, by the looks of it, hasn’t skipped arm day once.
DT has the arms of a damn middle linebacker... pic.twitter.com/SJsjBSRgPy— Ryan Koenigsberg (@RyanKoenigsberg) May 25, 2017
As the Broncos’ top pass catcher told reporters in May, "This is the best I've ever felt in damn near my whole career." Based on that picture above, I don’t doubt his sincerity. Like Bryant, Thomas is a physically dominant receiving threat, but the major question mark for this season is who he’s going to have throwing him passes. His production is going to be reliant on how well either Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch performs, and that leaves him with a wildly broad range of potential output. But if he hasn’t been skipping leg day either, he should be in a great position to bust through opposing defenses and give either signal-caller a big, easy target downfield.
C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos
Of course, Siemian or Lynch could get some help if Anderson wasn’t exaggerating when he talked to reporters in June.
"I’m definitely in the best shape I’ve been in in a long time," Anderson said. "So I’m excited about that."
The Broncos need to improve drastically in the run game after finishing 29th in the league last year, per Football Outsiders’ rush DVOA. Anderson’s one of the toughest runners in the NFL when he’s healthy, and if he’s carrying a little extra burst this season, he could be the key to Denver reestablishing that part of its offense.
Zach Brown, Washington Redskins
Brown wants to make a big impact with his new team this season, and he already put forth the stated goal of ending the year as the Redskins’ defensive MVP. That may be a high bar for a late free-agent signee, but if there’s anything behind his recent proclamation, the athletic linebacker will be flying around the field in 2017.
"Last year I hit a little snub in the road, but right now I’m in the best shape of my life," Brown said. "Hopefully I get it, but I’m going to work to get it."
Considering Brown ran a 4.50 40-yard dash at the combine back in 2012, if the above statement’s true, he’ll provide a nice infusion of speed into a defense that needs it this season.
Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
Suggs may soon turn 35 years old, but he’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet—and for the first time in his 15-year career in Baltimore, he took part in all of the Ravens’ offseason weight-lifting programs. His hard work there didn’t go unnoticed.
"He's put an incredible amount of work in, with intensity," said head coach John Harbaugh. "I think he's going to be in the best shape of his career."
OK, look. This one sounds like hyperbole. But I’m loath to put anything past the wily veteran pass rusher who racked up eight sacks last year in his age-34 season. As part of an elite defensive unit, Suggs just could surprise us all and post double-digit sacks—because if you believe what defensive coordinator Dean Pees told Suggs in June, the pass rusher looks like he’s 25 years old again.