FOXBORO -- Fred Davis walked off the Patriots practice fields last week with his helmet off, his light-gray t-shirt dark with sweat and clinging tightly to his shoulders.
Bill Belichick had just finished running his team through a breakneck two-minute drill to round out that day's workout, and Davis had been one of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's favorite targets during the period in which their group ran nearly 30 consecutive plays without stopping.
For Davis it was one of many recent exhausting, but welcome, re-introductions to the physical demands of life in the NFL.
"I was gassed, man," he said, smiling. "It was crazy. Just to do that, it shows you the type of conditioning you have to be in. Nothing like football shape."
Football shape has been somewhat of a foreign concept to Davis over the course of the last year. He missed the entire 2014 season after being handed an indefinite suspension last February for repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy, stalling a career that once held significant promise.
Davis was reinstated on May 7, and a few days after he was allowed to pursue an NFL job again, he traveled to Gillette Stadium for a workout. On May 11, the Patriots announced that they had signed the 29-year-old tight end.
Though it was just three years ago that Davis was deemed to have enough on-the-field value to warrant the Redskins franchise tag, he knows that he needs to make the most of this opportunity in New England in order to revive his career.
With the Patriots, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder joins a relatively crowded tight end group that includes Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, Tim Wright, Michael Hoomanawanui and rookie sixth-round pick AJ Derby. Fullback James Develin and defensive end Jake Bequette have also been working out with that position group under assistant Brian Daboll.
"I see it as a good chance," Davis said. "I'm not promised anything. We got eight guys here. I just look at it as I'm a veteran, I've been in the league for a while. You got guys that are working hard to be on the team as well. You gotta go out here and work every day, really. That's what it comes down to. I've been in this situation before. I know what it's like. I just know you have to work and hope if I work hard enough, I'll make the team."
If Davis is optimistic, it's because that in his six-year career he has produced a few stretches of very solid production. He caught 59 passes for 796 yards and three touchdowns for Washington in a suspension-shortened 12-game season in 2011. In 2012, he was on pace for another year of 50-plus catches, but he suffered an Achilles tear that ended his season after just seven games.
In 2013, as he continued to recover from his injury, Davis dropped on the Redskins depth chart and played a minimal role in the team's offense, finishing with just seven catches for 70 yards. Just as he felt as though the would have been back to full-strength in 2014, he was hit with his second suspension.
Davis has admitted to prior marijuana use, but soon after his ban was issued, he explained in a statement released by the NFLPA that the punishment was not a result of a positive test for marijuana.
"I would like to clarify the circumstances that resulted in my current suspension," the statement read. "In the past, I made the mistake of knowingly ingesting a banned substance. For over two years, I've worked very hard to eliminate marijuana from my life, and I have not had a positive test for it since 2011. Unfortunately, a couple of months ago I took a supplement that contained a banned substance.
"I now know that supplements are not regulated by the FDA and may contain banned substances. The NFL Policy is strict, and not knowing that a supplement might contain a banned substance doesn't excuse a violation of the policy. I've worked closely with the NFLPA and NFL to resolve this violation, and I will be permitted to apply for reinstatement in the fall. I look forward to staying in football shape, remaining in compliance with the NFL policy, and having a chance to get back on the field to contribute to a team's success next season."
Last week, Davis thought back to the series of events that led to his year-long hiatus. He understood that the league's disciplinary process has come into the spotlight in New England due to Deflategate and the four-game suspension that Tom Brady has been issued, but he did not get into Brady's situation, and he hesitated before relaying his thoughts on the league's track record of issuing severe penalties.
"In my situation, I did it," Davis explained. "I disobeyed what the rules were, and I had to accept the consequences.
"Now, if I think they're too harsh or not . . . You know what to do. We're grown men. We make decisions. I made a decision to make the wrong choice. I can't really speak for nobody else, but because of my decision, I knew I had to sit out."
There were times during Davis' suspension that he wondered whether or not he would ever get back on the field. Former NFL running back Ricky Williams found success in the league after a lengthy ban, but Davis knew there weren't all that many examples of players taking long stretches of time off against their will and still returning to form.
The worries that crept into Davis' head never lingered, though.
"Whenever you're out like that, that long, it's definitely a mental process," he explained. "When you're out for a year, you never know what could happen. You start doubting things.
"But I always knew in the back of my mind -- I knew I was a good player. I've put up some numbers in this league. I just felt like I would get another chance. Whatever that chance would be, man, I'm just gonna work to get back and get that chance."
To stay in shape, Davis worked out in Virginia with former NFL linebacker Eddie Mason, who operates MASE Training. Though the workouts were vigorous, the last month of OTAs in Foxboro -- the two-minute drills, the hill sprints after practice -- have reminded Davis just how difficult it is to replicate team-run workouts in the NFL.
"There's never nothing like football shape," Davis said. "When you're doing it by yourself, it's kind of hard. I thought I was in good shape, but then I came here and I figured out -- not really. You just try to do the best you can, get with some guys that do offseason training, which I did. But they don't work like this."
The challenges of Davis' return to football haven't been limited to getting his legs underneath him. There's a new and complex offense to learn, and though he had to adapt to three different systems in six years with the Redskins he said, "I feel like a rookie again."
To get by, he's leaned heavily on his own understanding of football concepts as well as the experienced Patriots in the tight end group. Due in part to their help, when he's asked to know what he's doing on the practice field, especially when he's been run ragged and things are moving quickly, he's been able to figure out where to be.
"That's the time you get the best results, when you're tired and you want to see what you can do," Davis said. "A lot of times in the games, you're gonna need to be in that situation. If you can go 100 [mph] when another guy's going 80, you have an advantage over him. That type of stuff is really good."
While his time away from the game has forced him to catch up both physically and mentally, Davis admitted that there were a couple of benefits from his suspension that he unearthed after sorting through the fallout of a career that was temporarily caved-in.
The first was the simple fact that his body was given a lengthy reprieve from the abuse of playing tight end and now feels as healthy as it has in over two years. The second was that he was given a refreshed appreciation for the game of football, and with it he intends to attack this second chance with vigor.
"Sitting out definitely makes you more hungry," he said. "I feel really hungry to play football and to come out and compete."