Patriots offensive linemen work hard to be versatile

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Patriots offensive linemen work hard to be versatile

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."

Belichick sarcastically praises media's ability to evaluate talent before padded practices

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Belichick sarcastically praises media's ability to evaluate talent before padded practices

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick took some time during Friday's press conference to remind reporters, and anyone else listening, that now isn't exactly the time for evaluations. Players are still in their shorts. Pads have yet to be introduced. 

In essence, pump the brakes. 

During his almost three-minute spiel, he made a few sarcastic quips about the talent "evaluators" in the media, and asked them to try to understand that what they are looking at for the first two days of training camp isn't REAL training camp. 

After fielding a few questions about subjects like the pass-catching ability of his running backs, the skill set of Brandin Cooks, and the versatility of undrafted rookie defensive back Kenny Moore, here's how Belichick made his point. 

"You know, you guys are asking a lot of questions about what we've seen from this guy, what we've seen from that guy," he started. "We've yet to put on pads. I understand that, you know, there's a pretty talented group of evaluators in this room but in all honesty our evaluations come more in training camp when we actually practice and we can fully execute the techniques and the plays that we're trying to do.

"The main thing we try to get done in the spring, and the main thing we're trying to get done in these two days is to teach the players what to do, to give them the most fundamental instruction that we can given the restraints that we have on practice. And then when padded practices, and I would say real training camp starts tomorrow, and will continue for quite a while after that including preseason games, is when the real evaluations start.

"I know everybody's all excited when a guy catches a pass, but when the defense doesn't jam him or they're not allowed to really because we don't want heavy contact out there, [they] aren't competing through contact at the end of the play, then it's not quite the same as when all that's going on. I'm not taking anything away from the receiverss. I'm not taking anything away from anybody. I'm just saying it is what it is. The competitive level out there's not what it's gonna be starting tomorrow.

"To evaluate players competitively when they're not on a competitive level, I have a hard time with. But I know a lot of the people are real good at that, and they can make a lot more out of it than I can so I can respect that. But due to my personal limitations, and my personal inability to make those evaluations, I don't make them. We can keep asking about how everybody does on this and how everybody does on that, and the main thing for me is to see if they're doing the right thing, doing it properly, how we can correct that, and then there will be a point in time where everybody will be able to go out and do it to the best of their ability against very competitive players on the other side of the ball, and we'll see what happens.

"That's when the evaluations really start, other than if a person can't take the intstricution and do whatever you've asked him to do or do it properly, you can evaluate that. But in some cases it's hard to evaluate how they do them competitively against somebody else when it's not a competitive situation."

Belichick: Ninkovich, Cardona miss practice for personal reasons

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Belichick: Ninkovich, Cardona miss practice for personal reasons

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick explained on Friday morning that Rob Ninkovich and Joe Cardona missed practice on Thursday for personal reasons. 

Ninkovich's absence was perhaps the most worth of attention on Day 1 of training camp simply because he has been one of the most durable players in the franchise's recent history. Now 33 years old, Ninkovich is going into his 12th NFL season. His experience and his willingness to pass own his knowledge has already been cited by younger teammates as priceless. 

Cardona continues to have Navy obligations to attend to and is often fulfilling those any time he misses Patriots activites. Belichick would not say when he planned to see either Ninkovich or Cardona back on the field.

Kony Ealy, who was not spotted at yesterday's practice, did not fall into the "missing for personal reasons" category, Belichick explained. That seemed to be an indication that Ealy is being held back by the team at the moment.