FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After 18 training camp practices, some of the top thoughts that come to mind with the Patriots:
1. Chandler Jones is the real deal. So much for the "he might need some seasoning" chatter that was so prevalent at the draft. The first-round draft choice seized the opportunity for additional reps at right defensive end when Rob Ninkovich was sidelined for a few days early in camp, and now looks like a permanent fixture there (with Ninkovich moving to the left side). While Jones has impressed on the field, he's also made an impression on his teammates off the field as a humble rookie who is willing to carry veterans' shoulder pads on his way off the field.
2. New look for the defense. The Bill Belichick trademark 3-4 base defense always had three big guys up front -- the two 5-technique defensive ends flanking the burly nose tackle. Think Ty Warren and Richard Seymour as bookends, with Vince Wilfork at the nose. But this is a new-look defense, with just two big bodies in the middle and then two hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker types on each side. Put three big linebackers behind them -- one of whom was a first-round pick (Dont'a Hightower) -- and you have the makings of a new-look, more flexible front-seven. So far, so good with this significant change.
3. Offensive line an early trouble spot. Protection up front has been inconsistent, in part because the unit has been without three of its best four blockers from last season -- left guard Logan Mankins (opened camp on PUP), right guard Brian Waters (has not reported) and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (remains on PUP). The Patriots look like they have enough depth and experience on the interior, but the tackle spot is likely more of a concern, especially with Vollmer's prior back injury.
4. More explosive at running back. While BenJarvus Green-Ellis did a lot of good things for the Patriots, and his ball security was never a concern, the revamped running back corps offers something the team didn't have with their former lead back: big-play capabilities. It's been a good competition between 2011 draft choices Shane Vereen (2nd round) and Stevan Ridley (3rd round) for top responsibilities in a committee-type approach, while Danny Woodhead returns as the change-of-pace back and rookie free agent Brandon Bolden has been a surprise and has made a strong case for a roster spot. Add explosive return man Jeff Demps and it's a young group that has more upside. While the Patriots will always lean toward the pass, the running game features more dynamic options.
5. Lloyd is what they thought Ochocinco could be. Not to pile on Chad Ochocinco/Johnson, but watching Brandon Lloyd in practice, it's the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to No. 85. While Ochocinco struggled to pick up the offense, Lloyd has made a much smoother transition and looks like the perimeter target the team thought it had with Ochocinco. Lloyd looks primed for a solid year.
EXTRA POINTS: Kyle Arrington has held off Ras-I Dowling at right cornerback in the base defense. ... Tight end Rob Gronkowski's ankle has responded well to offseason surgery, while fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez has been excellent. ... Same old Wes Welker, tough as ever to cover. ... No receiver has distinguished himself in the battle for the No. 3 job behind Welker and Lloyd. ... Linebacker Bobby Carpenter has seemingly carved out a role as a sub linebacker. ... Has to be some concern that big free-agent signing Jonathan Fanene hasn't been on the field for weeks. He had been nagged by a knee injury in the offseason. ... Steve Gregory is the projected starter at safety next to Patrick Chung. The duo worked together in all 18 practices and Gregory has been around the ball. ... No movement among the backup quarterbacks -- top backup Brian Hoyer and 2011 third-rounder Ryan Mallett. A lot of hype surrounding Mallett entering the preseason, but Hoyer still has a firm grip on the No. 2 job.