FOXBORO -- The numbers on the jerseys of Patriots offensive linemen have been a little like those on the ping pong balls that decide lottery winners. When lined up, their combinations are rarely the same.
Centers are playing guard. Guards are playing tackle. And tackles have been hard to find for the Patriots during training camp. They're all mixing and matching at different spots, and with different groups at different times.
It's a unit that has been hit hard by injury -- Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Kyle Hix, Dustin Waldron , Markus Zusevics and Matt Kopa all missed practice on Wednesday, and Brian Waters still hasn't reported -- leaving backups to fill in, and often at more than one spot.
Much in the way Vince Wilfork refuses to specify his position -- he'd rather give himself the more general title of "defensive lineman" -- the big men on the line for the Patriots' offense should not be held to positional designations. They are simply "offensive linemen."
Nick McDonald has been playing both right guard and left tackle for the Pats in the last two days against the Saints. He got a start at center for the Patriots last season so if there's an injury, he could end up there, too.
"It's very important," said McDonald of his versatility. "Most guys play multiple positions. That's what it takes to play in this league. Guys gotta know multiple spots, whether it's guard-center, guard-tackle, whatever. Everybody needs to know different spots."
McDonald played tackle at Grand Valley State University, but now he's backing up the man who has suddenly become one of the most indispensable players on the team, one of its few true, healthy tackles, Nate Solder.
McDonald says that he's always known tackle assignments because of all the communication that goes on between tackles and guards, but that doesn't mean he isn't studying up on his new job as the quarterback's blind-side protector.
"My head's always in a book, it's gotta be," McDonald said. "You always gotta keep working. You don't know everything so you always gotta be studying."
Ryan Wendell has played multiple spots on the line. Ditto for Dan Koppen. Dan Connolly has, too, seeing time at both guard and center.
"Every day it's a different unit, a different combination of guys," Connolly said. "Somebody new at center, somebody new at guard, and I think that's helped a lot. We all get used to playing with one another and we'll all build on that as the season goes along."
Tom Brady has had words with his lineman at different points during camp. And at times -- like in practice Wednesday when the team tried to run a screen -- it has looked out of sync.
The best thing for them would be to get Mankins, Vollmer and Waters back on the field. But until then, they'll make due with what they have, trying to get by as they all learn multiple spots.
"It's definitely not an easy job to do," Connolly said. "But it's what's expected of us and it's what we have to do to have a job on this team."