Case of the disappearing O-line

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A less-than-ideal situation unfolded at New England Patriots training camp practice Sunday, and if it persists, it could dash the high hopes the team carries into the 2012 season.

The offensive line is fading away before coach Bill Belichick's eyes.

The club finished Sunday's workout with just eight healthy/eligible-to-practice linemen, which is dangerously thin for a full-pads training camp practice. What makes it dangerous is that it forced first-unit tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon to work double duty, filling in on the second unit as well.

Those players need work, but there is always concern of overwork this early in camp, which could lead to injury.

Then, at another point in practice, first-unit left guard Donald Thomas committed a false start and was removed from the 11-on-11 drill. He was replaced by rookie free agent Jeremiah Warren of South Florida.

Welcome to the huddle, kid. All you have to do is help protect quarterback Tom Brady's blindside.

The shortage isn't any fault of Belichick and his hard-working personnel staff, which attempted to address the problem in recent days by signing rookie free- agent guard Derek Dennis and claiming rookie free agent Dustin Waldron on waivers.

But the club wasn't planning on losing reserve offensive tackles Darrion Weems (leg/knee) and Kyle Hix (arm/shoulder) in Sunday's practice, or having veteran guard Robert Gallery retire Saturday. As much as Gallery struggled at times in camp, he was still a capable body to execute a repetition, helping to better distribute the workload among all blockers.

So what should have been a plus-2 situation up front for the Patriots became a minus-1.

That is the way it's pretty much gone all camp on the line, and such juggling isn't anything out of the ordinary in NFL circles. Read some of the headlines from Dallas Cowboys camp and they're dealing with some of the same issues (they just signed two free-agent linemen).

It requires careful management, especially with the preseason opener coming up Aug. 9 against the New Orleans Saints. Belichick and his staff surely want to avoid having to re-insert a top player into the game, such as Solder, and potentially exposing him to injury because of the trickle-down effect of injuries at another layer of the depth chart.

One comforting aspect for Belichick and line coach Dante Scarnecchia is that proven solutions are in-house, should starting left guard Logan Mankins (ACL) and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back) come off the physically-unable-to-perform list, and starting right guard Brian Waters report to camp.

If those three all of a sudden showed up tomorrow, which remains a big "if," the picture would look dramatically different. Also, center/guard Nick McDonald, who proved to be a capable fill-in at center last season, should be banging in full pads very soon after coming off the physically unable to perform list Thursday (there is a three-practice rule before a player can fully participate). Dennis, the rookie from Temple, will also join the mix once his three-day waiting period is over.

So it's not necessarily as bad as it looks, and quarterback Tom Brady, for his part, sees good things from the offensive line in training camp.

"There's a lot of confidence in that group, and there's certainly guys in that group who are battle-tested, and have played quite a bit and been in the system, and have been coached by Dante," he said.

"The expectations are high for that position. There's a lot of competition. Those guys are working hard. They're fighting every day out here. They're working hard to figure out a role for themselves. I've never lacked in confidence for our offensive line."

In the end, the O-line issues could be a blip on the radar of the Patriots' 2012 season. But for now, when it comes to managing the roster in training camp, it's a primary concern.

The Patriots are having trouble keeping their linemen on the field and the potential dangerous trickle-down effect was on display for everyone to see Sunday.