Patriots must establish roles at camp

The day after the most embarrassing home loss of his New England coaching tenure -- a 33-14 playoff defeat against the Baltimore Ravens -- Bill Belichick was asked when the mourning period would end.

"Honestly, it really goes until the first day of training camp," he responded. "You get to training camp, that's really your first time where you can start the new season and therefore try and get to a higher level than you were at the year before. Up until that point, it's really "

Belichick trailed off before finishing the thought.

"There's a lot of work that goes into the offseason, don't get me wrong," he said. "I'm not trying to minimize the offseason, but it's a lot of hot air. 'Well, this is going to be better, that's going to be better.' Or 'we're going to do this, we're going to do that.' But until you actually get out there and start really doing it, that's when you feel like you can really make some progress.

"There are a lot of steps that lead up to that point, but I'd say the first day of training camp -- that's when you finally address [things] and you're in the 2010 season. That's when you're really in it."

At 9:30 Thursday morning, the Patriots will really be in it. That's when training camp 2010 begins, an even 200 days after the humiliating playoff defeat to the Ravens.

Part of the reason Belichick points to training camp as the decisive point in which the page can be turned is that the workouts can be in full pads, and thus, will include contact for the first time since the Ravens loss. Football is a physically brutal sport; the only way to really be in it is wearing pads.

Every season seems to feature a distinct theme with the Patriots.

Last year, it was the return of quarterback Tom Brady after he missed all but 15 snaps of the 2008 season, and the thought that perhaps we could see another record-setting offensive season. Two years ago, the main question was how the club would respond from its Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, a heartbreaking defeat that stunningly ended the Patriots' quest for a perfect season.

This year's theme is not as clear.

Maybe it was captured best by former Patriots receiver Troy Brown, who on Comcast SportsNet on Monday said that photos of past Patriots players have all been taken down inside Gillette Stadium and the inner workings of the facility have a different look with freshly painted walls. Brown said the message was that there can be no living in the past; it's a new decade and it's time for the current crop of Patriots to create their own identity.

That would be a powerful message for Belichick to send, if that was his intention.

The Patriots have drafted 24 players over the past two years, an astounding total which reflects, in part, the changing face of the team. Yet at the same time, there is plenty of savvy veteran experience across the roster, and it starts at the game's most important position with Brady.

This team is a distinct blend of young and old, with a larger-than-desired gap of in-their-prime impact players in the 3- to 6-year range. Perhaps that's the true theme of the 2010 season: the quest, and importance, of finding the right mix.

By the end of last year, it became clear that the Patriots didn't have the right mix of players -- on and off the field. Their personnel was not good enough. Neither was the all-important bond that needs to form in the locker room, a sanctuary that owner Robert Kraft correctly stated is a place where games are often won and lost before the opening kickoff.

So new playmakers need to emerge, such as 2009 second-round draft choices Darius Butler (projected starter at left cornerback) and Patrick Chung (possible starter at safety), 2009 third-round draft choice Brandon Tate (possible No. 3 receiver), and rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

New leaders need to emerge as well. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who earned a five-year, $40 million contract this offseason, will be counted upon more than ever in that area.

Do the Patriots have a better mix? As we watch closely for the answer, there will also be plenty of attention paid to the rival New York Jets in the same regard. The Jets have undergone their own dramatic makeover, taking a drastically different approach than the Patriots along the way.

While the Patriots selected those 24 players the past two drafts, the Jets have picked just seven. Instead, they've gone for big names in free agency and the trade market. Is it enough to overtake the Patriots in the AFC East?

Over the past 200 days, the questions have been dissected and analyzed, over and over again. Will receiver Wes Welker be ready? How, if at all, will Logan Mankins' contract standoff hurt the team? Does Tom Brady's contract status become a distraction? Will Bill Belichick's increased role coaching the defense help produce better results?

There are more, of course, but those are some of the biggest.

Training camp is here, and now that the Patriots are really in it, this is when we truly start to learn the answers.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.