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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.
WITH 2009 STATS
COACH BILL BELICHICK