2 New England PATRIOTS

New England has been remade, but can it reclaim its supremacy over the NFL?
September 05, 2010

BILL BELICHICK does not like to explain himself. So when he was asked last month why the photographs that had covered the hallways of Gillette Stadium—hundreds of them, from each of the Patriots' 121 victories since 2001, including their three Super Bowl triumphs—had been taken down, he gruffly replied, "Walls needed painting." But nobody in the New England organization needs to hear the coach's reasoning to understand his message: 2010 is the beginning of a new era for the decorated franchise. "If you haven't figured it out, you're not supposed to be here," says 34-year-old running back Kevin Faulk, the only member of the team whose arrival in Foxborough predates Belichick's. (Faulk was a second-round pick out of LSU in 1999; Belichick was hired in 2000.) "Everything is connected around here." Faulk pauses. "Trust me."

As Belichick enters his second decade as the Patriots' coach, just nine players remain on the roster from his 2004 Super Bowl champions and just 18 from his '07 team that went 19--1. Of the 82 players on New England's training camp roster in the first week of August, 52 had come to the organization since the end of the '08 season—including the 24 draft picks Belichick has made over the past two years, three more than any other team. Never mind the glory days. The majority of these Patriots never even played with Matt Cassel.

Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain spent the first four years of his career in New England before signing as a free agent with the 49ers in 2007. He returned to Foxborough a year ago to find a locker room full of strangers. "When I left, there was a lot of cohesion between the guys," says Banta-Cain, 29, a late-blooming pass rusher whose career-high 10 sacks led the Patriots in '09. "Now there are obviously a lot of different last names. It's hard not to notice when you're used to certain guys being in the locker room—[Tedy] Bruschi, [Mike] Vrabel, [Rodney] Harrison. Those guys being gone, I think it's a great opportunity for the young guys to make a name for themselves."

This, clearly, is Belichick's hope: that vital contributors will quickly emerge out of his youth movement and seamlessly integrate with the stalwarts he has retained. That seems most likely to happen on offense. Sebastian Vollmer, the 6' 8", 315-pound second-year German tackle, a former swimmer who took up football at 14 and played in college at Houston, has matured into a mauling blocker and is poised to emerge as the anchor of an aging but still effective line that yielded only 18 sacks in '09. The Tom Brady--led passing game, which last season seemed overly reliant on Wes Welker and Randy Moss (the duo was responsible for 53% of the team's receptions), should now be more multifaceted, due in no small part to the development of second-year receiver Julian Edelman. The former Kent State quarterback looked good late last season while subbing for Welker after the latter blew out his knee early in a Week 17 loss to the Texans. "We've got weapons all over the field on the offense," says Banta-Cain. "Tom will definitely have his targets, and we have to hit them. It's a committee this year."

Less certain will be the performance of Belichick's overhauled defense. The secondary, led by Pro Bowl strong safety Brandon Meriweather and featuring three first- or second-round picks from the past two drafts in cornerbacks Darius Butler and Devin McCourty and strong safety Pat Chung, is both talented and deep. But the front seven—which gave up 234 rushing yards to the Ravens in a mortifying 33--14 wild-card loss—remains thin, a problem that got even worse after defensive end Ty Warren, the franchise's active sacks leader, landed on injured reserve last month with a torn labrum in his hip.

New England isn't a preseason favorite to win the AFC East. What, Edelman was asked, was his view on that? Is it just another sign of the overhaul?

The 24-year-old wideout's eyes widened. It was not, he knew, the type of question Belichick favors. Then Edelman smiled, and, showing how well he has learned from his coach, said confidently, "We're just trying to work out there and, you know, get better." A classically inscrutable Belichickian response. If all the kids catch on this quickly, perhaps the new Patriots will come to resemble the Patriots of old sooner than expected.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH BILL BELICHICK

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 3

QB TOM BRADY

G 16

ATT 565

COMP 371

PCT 65.7

YARDS 4,398

TD 28

INT 13

RATING 96.2

RB LAURENCE MARONEY

G 15

ATT 194

YARDS 757

AVG 3.9

REC 14

YARDS 99

AVG 7.1

TTD 9

WR RANDY MOSS

G 16

REC 83

YARDS 1,264

TTD 13

WR WES WELKER

G 14

REC 123

YARDS 1,348

TTD 4

WR JULIAN EDELMAN

G 11

REC 37

YARDS 359

TTD 1

TE ALGE CRUMPLER

G 16

REC 27

YARDS 222

TTD 1

LT MATT LIGHT

G 11

HT 6'4"

WT 305

LG DAN CONNOLLY

G 14

HT 6'4"

WT 313

C DAN KOPPEN

G 16

HT 6'2"

WT 296

RG STEPHEN NEAL

G 12

HT 6'4"

WT 305

RT SEBASTIAN VOLLMER

G 14

HT 6'8"

WT 315

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 11

DE GERARD WARREN

G 16

TACKLES 35

SACKS 2

INT 0

NT VINCE WILFORK

G 13

TACKLES 43

SACKS 0

INT 0

DE MIKE WRIGHT

G 16

TACKLES 35

SACKS 5

INT 0

LB TULLY BANTA-CAIN

G 16

TACKLES 55

SACKS 10

INT 0

LB JEROD MAYO

G 13

TACKLES 103

SACKS 1½

INT 0

LB GARY GUYTON

G 16

TACKLES 85

SACKS 1½

INT 0

LB DERRICK BURGESS

G 16

TACKLES 34

SACKS 5

INT 0

CB DARIUS BUTLER

G 14

TACKLES 35

SACKS 0

INT 3

FS BRANDON MCGOWAN

G 16

TACKLES 79

SACKS 0

INT 0

SS BRANDON MERIWEATHER

G 16

TACKLES 83

SACKS 0

INT 5

CB LEIGH BODDEN

G 15

TACKLES 55

SACKS 0

INT 5

SPECIAL TEAMS

P ZOLTAN MESKO (R)

PUNTS 52

AVG 44.5

NET 40.9

K STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI

FG 26--31

XP 47--47

POINTS 125

PR WES WELKER

RET 27

AVG 12.5

TD 0

KR MATTHEW SLATER

RET 11

AVG 24.5

TD 0

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 10--6

September

12 Cincinnati

19 at N.Y. Jets

26 Buffalo

October

4 at Miami (M)

10 BYE

17 Baltimore

24 at San Diego

31 Minnesota

November

7 at Cleveland

14 at Pittsburgh

21 Indianapolis

25 at Detroit (T)

December

6 N.Y. Jets (M)

12 at Chicago

19 Green Bay

26 at Buffalo

January

2 Miami

(M) Monday (T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 6

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .531

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 8

ANALYSIS

The tone will be set early, with showdowns against the AFC North--champion Bengals and AFC East--rival Jets, and the traditional game with Indy looms too, the eighth straight time the two AFC powers have played in the regular season. The Pats will need to pack their parkas come November—save for a visit to Detroit's dome, it's cold weather sites from then on.

SPOTLIGHT

Aaron Hernandez, Tight end

TIGHT ENDS do not typically flourish with the Patriots. Of the 16 who have played for Bill Belichick during his 10 seasons in New England, none ever had a better receiving season than Ben Watson in 2006. That year Watson had 634 receiving yards on 49 catches—modest numbers that rank 66th and tied for 86th, respectively, on the decade's list of single-season performances by a tight end.

But Belichick longs to find a tight end who can play a more integral role in his passing game. In April he drafted two who have that talent: Arizona's Rob Gronkowski, with the 10th pick of the second round, and Florida's Aaron Hernandez, with the 15th pick of the fourth. While the immense (6' 6", 265 pounds) Gronkowski is the more developed all-around player, it is the 6' 2", 245 pound Hernandez who even at the callow age of 20 could quickly become the pass-catching threat that Tom Brady has never had at the position. Hernandez won the John Mackey Award as college football's best tight end last season, when he had 68 receptions for 850 yards and five touchdowns as Tim Tebow's top target. He fell to the fourth round only because he tested positive for marijuana—Hernandez says only once, though NFL sources say he tested positive several times.

Hernandez gives New England a receiver who can take some of the load off slot man Wes Welker. "He's got a lot of skill out there—a lot of quickness for his size, and he gets open against man-to-man coverage," says Welker. "Blocking's going to be a key thing for him. We can't have a tight end who can't block out on the field. But he's been really impressive."

PHOTOBOB ROSATOLINE COUNT The first job of the Pats' refurbished front five will be protecting Brady. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)