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.
"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.