Camp Observations: Day 12

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots practiced in full pads for the second straight day on Monday morning. Here are some observations:

Offensive line focus. It’s been something of a revolving door along the Patriots’ offensive line in recent days, with a number of injuries leaving the team plugging gaps with new and inexperienced players at certain positions. Perhaps no spot has been shaved thinner than tackle, where Sebastian Vollmer (PUP) has been joined by Kyle Hix, Matt Kopa, and Darrion Weems on the sidelines. With four players on the shelf, the Patriots look to be experimenting with Nick McDonald at the left tackle spot, something he hasn’t done during his brief pro career. McDonald just recently was removed from the PUP list, and put the pads on for the first time today. He was thrown into the mix right away, repping at both guard and left tackle – a position he played as a senior at Grand Valley State. From a skill set standpoint, McDonald has good athleticism, but lacks the typical lead in the trunk that we see at the tackle spot (he’s listed at 305 pounds, but doesn’t look that heavy in pads).

More offensive line thoughts. With the aforementioned injuries, the Patriots may look to experiment with a number of players in different positions, similar to McDonald. Four players, Jeremiah Warren, Dustin Waldron, Derek Dennis and McDonald worked in a small group with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia during practice, receiving two separate sessions of individual tutelage. Perhaps this is part of a plan to see which of these players might be able to play a position other than what he is listed at on the roster.

Tempo. With a trio of referees on hand for practice, the Patriots wasted no time getting into up-tempo on-field work. That included an 11-on-11 move-the-field drill early on in practice, and Bill Belichick often called out for specific down and distances throughout the session. With the Saints set to arrive for a joint-practice tomorrow, and a game in just three days, the Patriots appear locked in on picking up the pace and readying for live action.

Running game focus. The Patriots may well end up as a pass-heavy offense again in 2012, but that doesn’t diminish the need for a capable running game too. The team focused in on the run during much of Monday’s morning practice, with Stevan Ridley looking like the top horse. Ridley can skate to the perimeter and also chunk up yards up the middle, while Danny Woodhead projects to hold down the team’s change of pace back role.

Edelman’s hands. Receiver Julian Edelman has been a bright spot for the Patriots throughout training camp, running precise routes and making defenders miss with regularity. But he has experienced some struggles catching the football, particularly outside of his frame and under duress. Bill Belichick talks about getting open and catching the ball as receivers’ primary tasks; Edelman has been able to generate separation with nearly indefensible releases (he effectively uses his agility), but has had a handful of drops to boot.

Fullback thoughts. Another position that has been bitten by the injury bug is fullback, where the Patriots are down both Spencer Larsen (unknown injury) and Tony Fiammetta (placed on the reserved/left list). That’s left just Eric Kettani to handle the reps, although it’s still unclear what role the fullback will play in Josh McDaniels’ offense. One thought that came to mind during practice, having seen him align in the backfield on occasion, is whether or not the Patriots will utilize Aaron Hernandez from the fullback alignment with more regularity. He has experience blocking as a tight end, as well as running and catching the football.

Rivera gets reps, Fletcher has quiet afternoon. Linebacker Dane Fletcher had a quiet workload on Monday morning, while fellow backer Mike Rivera saw increased reps, including some with the first team defense and on the top kickoff team. No word on why such may have been the case, and whether or not the two workloads are tied into each other.

Ebner’s development. One player we haven’t seen much of is sixth-round pick Nate Ebner, a special teams maven at Ohio State with limited defensive experience. He had a chance to work extensively as a coverage player against both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on Monday; that’s about as difficult of a matchup as a safety will face in the NFL, and Ebner had some ups and downs. It looks like he’s continuing to work on the nuances of covering receivers, including his technique with the ball in the air.

Loose ends. Brandon Lloyd had an uncharacteristic drop on a deep throw down the field from Brady. … Ras-I Dowling made a heckuva leaping pass break up on a sideline throw from Tom Brady. Another example of his length coming into play. … Steve Gregory doesn’t seem like the most physical of safeties from what we’ve seen so far. We’ll find out more on Thursday night.

Attendance report. Offensive linemen Derrick Dennis and Nick McDonald were allowed to practice full pads for the first time. ... Rookie receiver Jeremy Ebert, who was removed from the active/PUP list on Sunday, was in shells and shorts for Monday's session, along with newly-signed cornerback Derrick Martin. Neither can practice in full pads yet. ... Players not spotted on the field: fullback Spencer Larsen (unknown); tight ends Visanthe Shiancoe (unknown) and Jake Ballard (ACL); offensive linemen Brian Waters (did not report), Kyle Hix (arm/shoulder), Darrion Weems (leg/knee), and Matt Kopa (unknown); defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene (unknown); and linebackers Tracy White (unknown) and Brandon Spikes (unknown) ... Players in T-shirts and shorts: safety James Ihedigbo (unknown); offensive lineman Ron Brace (unknown); tight end Daniel Fells (leg); offensive linemen Logan Mankins (ACL), Sebastian Vollmer (back), and Markus Zusevics (pectoral); defensive lineman Myron Pryor (shoulder); and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring).