McDonald brings versatility to Patriots offensive line

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McDonald brings versatility to Patriots offensive line

FOXBORO -- When Nick McDonald passed his physical and came off the PUP list, it looked like the Patriots were stacked at center.

McDonald spent his sophomore year on New England's practice squad until December. Once called up, he started at center twice in December against the Colts and Redskins. He was good insurance for Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly, certainly.

It appeared the rookie Green Bay cast off after 2010 turned into a nice little pick-up for the Patriots.

He could end up even better.

McDonald has gotten reps up and down the line during camp, but upped the ante last Thursday by taking snaps at tackle. Count Bill Belichick among those who are impressed.

"We don't have a lot of depth at tackle, so he was probably the most experienced -- not that he has a lot of experience," the coach said, "but still the most experienced guy who also has the athleticism to be able to play the position.

"I thought he did a pretty good job out there for not much practice. He hadn't done it in a couple years and went back out there and really did a pretty credible job. That was great to see."

True, McDonald hasn't played tackle since his days at Grand Valley State in Michigan, but the Patriots can't currently afford to ease him back in. Offensive line depth is too much an issue.

The Patriots toil through camp without the help of guard Brian Waters (not reported) and tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Markus Zusevics (both on PUP). Guard Logan Mankins returned to action Sunday, but it's hard to say where offseason ACL surgery leaves him. With tackles Matt Kopa and Kyle Hix missing practice for rehab, New England is left with a trio of rookies rotating in: Darrion Weems, Dustin Waldron, and Kyle Hill. Undrafted free agent Derek Dennis was brought in to help at guard.

You see the problem.

"There aren't many offensive linemen in the league that can play all five spots," said Belichick. "If he could do that, that would be very valuable to our football team."

Ah, yes. Versatility -- the most seductive trait a player can offer the Patriots coaching staff. Though if McDonald knows what he's got, he's not bragging about it.

The player was presented with Belichick's praise early Sunday evening. Reporters asked about the added challenge and responsibility of playing all over the line.

McDonald shrugged.

"You've just got to know everything. You've got to expect what the coaches want in different spots," he said. "You've got to get your nose in the book; you've got to know everything. It's what they expect out of you.

"It's not really that different," he insisted. "Scheme-wise it's different -- you've got to know different assignments. But playing center you know what the guard's doing; playing guard you know what the tackle's doing, so it all kind of works together."

Exactly what the Patriots are hoping for.

Foster playing catch-up, could help his cause vs. Panthers

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Foster playing catch-up, could help his cause vs. Panthers

FOXBORO -- When DJ Foster took the field for Patriots OTAs, he looked as advertised: quick, a crisp route-runner, and the owner of a pair of dependable hands. But that was back when players wore shorts to every practice. Since then, the undrafted rookie running back out of Arizona State hasn't had the opportunity to do much other than work on his conditioning while the majority of his teammates practiced. 

That could soon change. Though Foster has dealt with what he calls a "nagging" injury throughout much of training camp, he felt well enough this week to return to practice, and on Friday night he is likely to see preseason game action for the first time this summer.

The reason Foster's preseason debut could carry some importance is that he happens to play a position that may qualify as the thinnest on the Patriots roster right now. Because sub back extraordinaire Dion Lewis will not be healthy enough to start the season, and because coach Bill Belichick opted to part ways with veteran Donald Brown recently, the team is low on numbers in their running back room.

If Foster can capitalize on the opportunities he's given, he may make a case for a roster spot. James White, who is expected to be Lewis' primary replacement, is the other lone true sub back on the roster. Brandon Bolden can fill in at that role on an emergency basis, and Tyler Gaffney has shown he can catch the football when asked, but neither has the kind of pass-catching upside of Foster, who played receiver for the Sun Devils as a senior and racked up 222 receptions during his four-year college career. 

Foster has only so much time to prove he's worthy of a job. The Patriots have to reduce their numbers to 75 by Aug. 30. They need to be down to 53 by Sep. 3. Foster could be a tantalizing prospect to stash on the practice squad, but surely he'd like to make a push for a greater role. 

He explained this week that, despite his recent physical limitations, he won't be holding back whenever he does get a chance to prove himelf. 

"The coaches do a great job at just kind of making sure I'm OK and stuff," he said. "For me, when I'm in there, do what I can, give everything I got -- every rep, every chance I get with the reps. Stay in the playbook, stay involved in the meetings, and just try to learn as much as I can. Whenever I do get an opportunity, go out there and make the most of it."

Against the Panthers, the Patriots coaching staff will have to balance the need to evaluate players like Foster against good competition versus getting the entire team ready for Week 1. For example, they'd like to get a good look at Foster, whose practice reps were next to nil before this week. They'd also probably like to get White as many reps as possible so that he's prepared for the Cardinals. 

Who should play when? And how many snaps do they need? 

"You can’t see D.J. Foster play in this league. You have Arizona State film but that’s all you have, and some of the spring work that he did which is obviously encouraging," Belichick said earlier this week. "We still have him, but there’s just no body of work. Donald Brown, you can see Donald Brown . . . Players like D.J., it’s hard. You don’t have much to go on. But maybe he’ll be able to do more. We’ll get an evaluation of him soon, hopefully."

Friday night could be the night. 

Patriots vs. Panthers: Five things to watch

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Patriots vs. Panthers: Five things to watch

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HOW LONG FOR TOM?

Somehow, Tom Brady’s stated desire to play this preseason devolved into discussion of whether he’s selfish, whiny and power-mad. Eh, it’s a living. How much will practice-game reps in August help him in October? I don’t know. You don’t know. But he apparently thinks they’ll help so let the guy prepare to do what you pay him a lot of money to do – play quarterback for a little while. “How little?” is the question. In my opinion, letting Jimmy Garoppolo take the first two drives then turning it over to Brady for 20 plays would give Garoppolo the chance to see the Panthers early, make adjustments after the first drive and then yield to Brady. My impression is that there’s nothing etched in stone as to who will play how long, rather, it’s something Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will let develop as they see fit.

CAN MINGO MAKE A GO

Will the Patriots unveil their brand-new Barkevious? Barkevious Mingo did reportedly make the trip to Charlotte so he’ll be on the sidelines at least soaking up some of what the Patriots do defensively. What will Mingo do defensively is a bigger question. He’s 6-4, 250 and built more like an NBA small forward than a standard edge defender. His strength lies in his burst and moving upfield, though, so giving Mingo some of Geneo Grissom’s late-game reps on the edge would give the team some early impressions on which to work.

WHICH SHIFTS DO KNIGHTON/BRANCH GET

Seeing Terrance Knighton on the field late in the fourth quarter last week against the Bears was a bit of an eye-opener. Did it signal that he is a down-the-roster player like most of the other players on the field at that juncture in the preseason? Or was he out there because the Patriots needed someone at DT and Knighton was the guy. Phil Perry contemplates Knighton’s role on the roster here. Meanwhile, Branch is just back from a week-long team suspension for undisclosed agitations. He may not be ready to go, having missed a few days of practice, but if he is I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Patriots playing him right up until the final gun as a test of his willingness to play in 2016.

SECONDARY CHALLENGES

Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn all bring something to the table which will test the Patriots secondary. Benjamin is a huge and athletic wideout that brings the size component into play; Olsen is one of the league’s faster, more surehanded tight ends and Ginn is a jet. The Patriots have let up some plays on the perimeter in each of the first two preseason games. The Bears’ first two drives last week were 10 plays and 11 plays long. Getting off the field on third down early against Carolina’s potent offense would be an encouraging sign. 

BETTER TEST FOR RUNING GAME

Last week, the Patriots ground attack showed some life against the Bears. It had been a long time coming. Tonight, the test will be much more stiff. The Panthers have the league’s best linebacker in Luke Kuechly, another outstanding one in Thomas Davis and a front that features Star Lotuleilei, Kawann Short, Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy. While the progress made against Chicago was nice, make some headway against this group and then you can really get optimistic.