- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The first break of New England Patriots training camp has arrived, coming after four days of work in front of record crowds that totaled more than 50,000 at the Gillette Stadium practice fields.
Players are off Monday, a stoppage that allows for some reflection on what we've seen and a look at where this team could be headed.
New-look defense. Bill Belichick appears to have officially turned the page on defense, introducing a new scheme that looks much different than the trademark 3-4 base package he's taught as a foundation throughout most of his tenure. Clearly, this is a result of the team spending less and less time in its heavier base defense in recent years (34 percent of the snaps in 2011), and this defense is a faster, more athletic unit with a four-man line. The top six ends (Jake Bequette, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Trevor Scott) and the top six interior players (Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick, Jonathan Fanene, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, Vince Wilfork) have been really getting after it, giving fans some hope that the pass rush might show more consistent signs of life.
Intriguing potential at linebacker spot. In addition to a new look up front, the Patriots have the potential to put together a top linebacker trio that could bring back memories of the great units with Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Ted Johnson & Co. It hasn't come to life on the field just yet, but based on the scheme the Patriots have been playing, one could envision thumper Brandon Spikes (6-foot-2, 255) in the middle, impressive rookie Dont'a Hightower (6-3, 270) on the strong side and captain Jerod Mayo (6-1, 250) making plays on the weak side. Hightower looks like the real deal. He plays with a mean streak and a physical edge, his physical makeup helping offset the bulk the Patriots are giving up on the front line to add more speed.
Same old concerns in secondary? While it's been easy to see the potential of what could unfold in the front seven, some of the same issues in the secondary that hurt the Patriots in 2011 have shown up again on the practice field. It makes one wonder if enough was done in the offseason and highlights the importance of cornerback Devin McCourty returning to 2010 form and 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling (cornerback) coming back strong after missing all but two games last year with a hip injury. At safety, free-agent signee Steve Gregory, formerly of the Chargers, has been lauded for his smarts and looks like he'll have the inside track to start alongside Patrick Chung. One factor to consider when evaluating the secondary: The Patriots' offense has been operating at a high level at this stage of camp.
Offensive line a trouble spot to monitor. With starting left guard Logan Mankins (knee) and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back) opening camp on the physically unable to perform list and starting right guard Brian Waters (personal) not reporting and leaving his future with the team in question, this has been the main area of the roster in which there has been shuffling. A lot can change between now and the Sept. 9 season opener at Tennessee, but the line hasn't always looked great early in camp. The return of veteran free-agent center Dan Koppen might be more important than anticipated if Dan Connolly is kicked out to Waters' right guard spot. Also, second-year right tackle Marcus Cannon might be a better fit at guard.
Newcomer Lloyd and the receiver group have been terrific. Some might say there have been shades of 2007's offensive fireworks on the practice fields. That might be a stretch, but as much as Chad Ochocinco struggled with the offense last year, veteran Brandon Lloyd has been at the opposite end of the spectrum this year. He looks like he's been playing with quarterback Tom Brady for a decade, the two hooking up on some long pass plays that have produced loud roars from the crowd. On Sunday, Brady found Lloyd deep over the middle for a 45-yard touchdown strike, with Gregory and McCourty the closest defensive backs in the area. Meanwhile, Wes Welker looks like the same old Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney (one of Brady's all-time favorites) has picked up where he left off in 2008. The receiver position looks stacked, with Deion Branch, Julian Edelman and Donte' Stallworth all making plays on a regular basis.
Ridley leads way at running back; Bolden a surprise. Second-year man Stevan Ridley looks like the early favorite to assume the bulk of the duties that BenJarvus Green-Ellis handled in 2011 when he led all backs with a 34 percent playing time clip. Meanwhile, rookie free agent Brandon Bolden of Mississippi has been a surprise and appears to have a real chance to earn a roster spot; he's caught the ball fairly well and at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds has a nice combination of size, speed and power. Shane Vereen, the 2011 second-round draft choice, is still working to find his groove while Danny Woodhead once again looks primed to serve as the change-of-pace option.
Gronkowski settling in; Hernandez on fire. Tight end Rob Gronkowski passed his physical at the opening of camp, a reflection of his hard work over the offseason after undergoing ankle surgery, but he acknowledged that he's still rusty. It has shown at times, such as Sunday when he dropped two passes (one that was intercepted, the other at the goal line) that he'd usually corral with relative ease. Meanwhile, fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez looks explosive. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is going to have fun finding ways to get the football in his hands, and even special-teams coach Scott O'Brien has gotten into the mix, seeing how Hernandez looks as a punt returner.
Same old Brady. Worried about signs of Brady slowing down as he approaches his 35th birthday on Aug. 3? Based on the first four days of camp, there is no reason to be. The offense, in general, has had the upper hand.
Redemption story for Brace and Cunningham? The Patriots invested second-round draft choices in defensive lineman Ron Brace (2009) and defensive end Jermaine Cunningham (2010), and both haven't played up to the level in which they were selected. Now with the weight of expectations lifted, they are both putting together strong camps. Brace's size inside has generated consistent push against any interior lineman he's faced, and Cunningham looks more explosive than he did last year, showcasing some pass-rushing moves (e.g. a spin on Marcus Cannon on Sunday) that have looked Mark Anderson-esque.