NFL to enforce rule changes for knee and thigh pads
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One of the rules the NFL is cracking down on this season is that all players are required to wear thigh pads and knee pads during games, and it has become a hot topic early in training camp.

The players were actually required to wear them last season but if they didn't, the only punishment was a minor fine. This year, the league says players won't be allowed to take the field if the thigh pads and knee pads aren't in place.

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For now, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is giving most -- but not all -- of his players the option of whether they want to wear them during training camp practices.

"All the first year players, when we have padded practices, will be wearing the pads, their thigh boards and the knee pads," Harbaugh explained during his first training camp media session from the podium.

"The second year players and above who have been practicing full gear without the pads and the pants will have the choice to practice like they have been practicing without the knee pads and the thigh boards, or they can put them in," Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh took a cue from the NHL for his training camp "pad rule," an edict dating back to 1979 when the professional hockey league started requiring players to wear a somewhat important piece of equipment — a helmet.

"There was a time when even goalies didn't wear helmets. They thought maybe it was a good idea for the goalies to wear a shield like a catcher," Harbaugh said. "Some did, some didn't. But all the first year guys coming into the league had to. Those who were already in the league were grandfathered in. Then, with the position players then, they made the same rule -- those players had to wear their helmets and those who were already in the league, it was their choice."

Harbaugh has always been of the belief that a team plays as it practices. So why not simply require all players to wear the additional leg pads if the NFL is mandating it anyway?

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"That's definitely our suggestion that they wear them in the practices," Harbaugh said. "That's their choice to do that. We'll have one practice, maybe two, before a preseason game where everybody wears them. We're thinking along the same lines."

There may be a few players, particularly those on the bubble to make the final roster, who may benefit from not being "weighed down" by the extra padding. But many established veterans don't plan on wearing them until they have to.

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"I'll wear the regular pads," wide receiver Kyle Williams said on the day he was activated from the physically unable to perform list.

Justin Smith said he hasn't worn thigh pads in 10 or 11 years, and he's none too happy he'll be required to make the change starting Sept. 8 when the 49ers open the regular season against Green Bay.

"I think the pendulum has swung too far, but that's the way it goes," Smith said. "The rule is a rule. You go with it."