FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rookie receiver Jeremy Ebert was answering questions from reporters after Monday's practice when he heard a voice behind him. "Jeremy, don't forget the pads, bro."
It was veteran Deion Branch reminding Ebert, the seventh-round draft choice out of Northwestern, to carry the veterans' shoulder pads off the practice field.
Not that Ebert needed the reminder. He's been doing it every day since he came off the physically unable to perform list about a week into training camp.
"It's just part of being a rookie," Ebert said, smiling, before elaborating on the jump to the NFL. "The whole speed of the game is bigger, faster stronger. It's the best of the best. It's not Northwestern anymore. It's the Patriots. It's going to be tougher."
Ebert has been working as a punt returner in practice -- something he didn't do at Northwestern -- and he muffed one attempt on Monday. That brought back memories of one of Julian Edelman's first training camp practices with the Patriots in 2009, and some of his struggles as a first-time punt returner, which had the crowd booing.
Ebert didn't get booed on Monday, but he was hard on himself for the miscue.
"I should be better. I feel like I'm a good enough athlete to return punts, but it's just something I have to work on, and that's why I'm out here [at practice] working hard every day," he said.
It turns out Edelman, the team's primary returner, has been a good teacher.
"I try to learn as much as I can from him in the film room, and just taking notes mentally, and watching him practice," Ebert said.
While the top of the Patriots' receiver depth chart looks stocked, the overall numbers have thinned because of releases and injuries, and that has given Ebert some valuable repetitions in practice and Thursday's preseason opener (27 second-half snaps on offense; 1 catch for 4 yards).
Cracking the 53-man roster might be too tough a task, but Ebert -- donning Troy Brown's old No. 80 -- knew that would be the case with any team.
"I think it's going to be an uphill battle, no matter what," Ebert said, when asked if the time missed at the start of camp might hurt him. "It's not easy to play in the NFL. I'm just going to be out here working every day as hard as I can, trying to get better."