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Players must turn corner

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / July 27, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH — You could smell it in the air Thursday afternoon on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.

The aroma of great aspirations.

Super Bowl title or bust.

Remember the franchise that seemed to doubt itself at times after three consecutive seasons without a playoff victory — including brutal losses to the Ravens and Jets?

So over. Feels like 10 years ago.

What we saw in the first training camp practice from the Patriots was a collective look of determination.

Don’t mistake it, however, for redemption or unfinished business after the Super Bowl loss to the Giants.

The Patriots were beaten by a more talented team that executed better. It’s the truth. It happens.

And it also doesn’t allow the kind of Super Bowl hangover that often claims teams on the losing side the following season.

The Patriots weren’t some plucky underdogs who saw their dreams dashed in the big game. They won the games they were supposed to, and they have Tom Brady at quarterback.

You don’t strive for excellence around here. It’s demanded and attained. By the owner. The coaches. And, most importantly, by the players.

That’s why the other tone you felt in the air Thursday was, essentially, “We’ve got this.”

That wasn’t the case last season.

The Patriots were forced into scramble mode just like every other team after the lockout, but they had it worse because of self-inflicted wounds.

The poor drafts from 2006-09 left the Patriots without depth. So they went out and tried to trade for it and sign it. That’s fine most years, but with no offseason, the Patriots didn’t become a cohesive unit until they faced the cream puff brigade in the second half of the season.

Sure, the Patriots added a bunch of new parts this season, including their first six draft picks on defense. But they’ve been able to work together before training camp.

That means Brady, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Wes Welker, and the other veterans have been able to size up the new additions.

Trust me, they like what they see.

But this team is far from a finished product. The offensive line is a mess. It was eaten alive by the defense in the first practice. But the Patriots, when the season rolls around, will be fine there.

Defensively, the front seven will be the strength. Oh, the toys Bill Belichick now has (finally) to play with there.

Too bad this isn’t 1992, or even 2002, when teams actually cared about running the ball. This is a passing league, and until the Patriots get things settled in the secondary, they’re going to have a tough time against an elite quarterback.

The good news is they seem to have some good pieces. The chore will be to stay healthy and fit them in the right way. Nobody is better at the latter than Belichick.

But the players need to do their part. And some need to deliver more than others.

The six players who must ascend this training camp for the Patriots to win it all:

Left tackle Nate Solder — There is no question that Solder possesses the talent and smarts to succeed Matt Light as Brady’s blind-side protector. And the 11 starts at right tackle gave Solder invaluable experience. But doing it on the other side as a starter — not a fill-in for Sebastian Vollmer — is much different. Solder looks much stronger, and that will help him. What won’t aid his ascension is an extended absence by left guard Logan Mankins. They both need as many reps as possible. Solder will be watched carefully in this camp. While he played admirably last season, he didn’t fare well in his first camp. Solder lost 55.6 percent of matchups in one-on-one drills last August — by far the worst for any player who made the team. He doesn’t need to put up Vollmer-like numbers (24.1 loss percentage) but Solder needs to show much improvement. If Brady’s not comfortable, no one will be.

Cornerback Devin McCourty — Many of his struggles last season were blamed on a bum shoulder, but he was bad before that. McCourty is healthy now. He did not get off to a good start on Thursday. If the Patriots are going to apply pressure up front through blitzes and zone pressures, they are going to need the cornerbacks to be able to play on an island. McCourty was beaten in that situation deep by Donte’ Stallworth. McCourty is fine with the play in front of him, but the Patriots have evolved from that passive defense. He could still be better suited for free safety. However, until other cornerbacks emerge, McCourty is going to have to do the job.

Cornerback Ras-I Dowling — We’ve been over this one before. First of all, he needs to stay on the field. Second, because of his size and speed, Dowling has rare athletic gifts. The Patriots drafted him to be a starter. He isn’t there yet, and he struggled at times to open training camp with three balls completed over his enormous wing span. Dowling needs to be a player. Can he push through and do it? The coaches will be demanding it.

Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham — Nobody will be watched more closely than the 2010 second-round pick. He showed some promising flashes as a rookie. Cunningham had only one sack, but that’s not a true measure of impact. He finished third on the team with 23 quarterback pressures. That’s production. Cunningham showed no improvement after the lockout and was relegated to the bench. Cunningham’s time is now. Rob Ninkovich is a good player, but for the Patriots to improve defensively they need a true end to be a force on the left side, not a linebacker/end tweener. If Cunningham can do the job, it allows Belichick to utilize Ninkovich’s versatility in ways that are much more beneficial in the long run.

Right ends Trevor Scott and Chandler Jones — Andre Carter might ride in and save the day, but until then one of these two players (or likely a combination) has to replace the playmaking ability we saw from Carter and Mark Anderson a season ago. Despite playing limited snaps his first two seasons in Oakland, Scott posted 12½ sacks and about 30 pressures. Knee surgery in 2010 set him back, and he seems to be primed to make an impact. Jones, the top pick, will need some time to develop. Expect the Patriots to use both players like they did Carter, who started and kicked inside in passing situations, and Anderson, who was a situational pass rusher for most of the season.

Yes, the Patriots feel good about themselves, and they should. This is a team that is brimming with talent. The depth is undoubtedly improved. The schedule lines up nicely, and they reside in the AFC, where the path is much easier to the Super Bowl.

But the Patriots aren’t going to walk off with another Lombardi Trophy unless some key players answer the bell.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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