THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
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Followers must become leaders

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / July 30, 2010

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It doesn’t take a three-time world champion coach to take a few pictures off the wall.

You could do that. So could I. So could your friend’s wife, who doesn’t know the AFC from AFLAC.

The next step for that decorated leader, Bill Belichick, isn’t so easy.

After gutting the football operations area of Gillette Stadium of its wall decor, the coach better hope that the players he was sending that message to have the ability carry it out.

Because if they don’t, attitude won’t matter.

The NFL remains a talent business, and as the Patriots try to hand their team over to a bunch of neophytes, the fact of the matter is that those guys, first and foremost, need to be good enough.

Often lost in the cuddly stories of the dynasty years is that guys such as Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, and Ty Law weren’t just smart and disciplined and tough, they were playmakers and gamers, too.

So there’s the story of 2010 training camp, and the season that will follow it: Are the 24 draft picks from the last two years good enough, and if they are, can the coaches have them ready to compete at a high enough level to maintain the franchise’s astronomical standard of success?

One way or another, the next half-decade for this franchise could well depend on it.

“It’s a fresh start,’’ said cornerback Darius Butler, a prospective starter and one of the second-year players expected to make a leap. “We had nothing to do with those Super Bowl rings, or those championships. It’s a fresh start. We’ve got to make our own mark, working every day.’’

Here’s the thing: For as much talk about how the Patriots got younger this offseason, their roster remains among the league’s oldest. Only five teams have New England beat in the category of “elderly,’’ according to ESPN.com. That’s even with the aforementioned haul of freshmen and sophomores dotting this year’s training camp facebook.

The reason why underscores the importance of those first- and second-year players. The Patriots’ draft history between 2006-08 doesn’t quite represent a black hole in roster building, but it has shoved the team into a fairly deep ditch, which is why the club remains older, on balance, than more than five-sixths of the league.

Only tailback Laurence Maroney and Stephen Gostkowski remain from 2006. Only Brandon Meriweather is left from 2007, and while Randy Moss and Wes Welker were acquired with picks from that year, that hardly exonerates the club’s college scouting process. Fact is, the team drafted eight players after Meriweather, and one made it to 2008. That was Mike Richardson, who was cut out of camp in 2009.

Shawn Crable’s release Wednesday shows that the 2008 draft class is bordering on a similar result. The club has already whacked two top-100 picks from that year, and Terrence Wheatley could make three by September. Jerod Mayo remains a cornerstone, but it’s entirely possible he and Jonathan Wilhite are the only ones left when the games start counting. All it would take is the release of Wheatley and Matthew Slater to make that happen.

In the salary-cap era, many champions are built with foundation guys in years 3-5, still affordable while playing on rookie deals, but coming into their primes. Chances are solid that the Patriots will have just five players (Maroney, Gostkowski, Mayo, Meriweather, Wilhite) in that range of experience on their roster Sept. 12.

That’s not the death knell for this team, of course. But it does heighten the importance of the 2009 and ’10 guys on a couple of levels.

First, plenty of them will have to play big roles. If the team is to rely on these players in the future, the Patriots have to keep them on the roster now. Say 20 make it through — that’s 38 percent of your team, and potentially 44 percent of your game-day roster.

“I don’t think about the future,’’ said safety Patrick Chung, another 2009 draftee expected to improve. “Everybody who’s here right now, we go to work. You’re either going to perform and help the team or you’re not.

“All that future stuff? Don’t worry about the past or the future, we’re right here, day by day. It’s one practice, and we still have one more to go. Just keep working.’’

For the players, that’s the proper attitude. For the team? Having three drafts with limited return in young, affordable talent is tough on a franchise. Having five in a row would be devastating, and that’s why the young guys are so vital.

The good news is that there is plenty of promise in the 2009 class. Butler took lumps last year, and the club feels as if he and Chung could anchor the secondary, along with Meriweather, for years to come. Sebastian Vollmer, in eight starts last year, showed the potential to be a 10-year left tackle, and Julian Edelman looks like a seventh-round steal.

There are others in that class, such as Brandon Tate and Tyrone McKenzie, who can’t be evaluated as pros yet. Similarly, it’s impossible to draw conclusions on rookies who saw their first fully-padded NFL practice less than 24 hours ago.

What’s not hard to figure is this: Those guys need to perform now and in the future.

That starts now. And it’ll take more than a home makeover to make that happen.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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