FOXBOROUGH, MASS. (AP) - The New England Patriots faltered badly late last season without four veteran leaders who were gone before the opener.
They faded at the end of games, gave up long plays and got whipped in the first round of the playoffs.
So it's a positive development that all 12 draft picks signed before the start of training camp on Thursday. That's 12 more youngsters for coach Bill Belichick to look at as he tries to replace players who helped win Super Bowl championships.
The Patriots have just three players left from the team that won three titles starting in 2002 _ Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk and Matt Light. Only 17 remain who played in the 2008 Super Bowl, a 17-14 loss to the New York Giants.
Before last season, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison retired while linebacker Mike Vrabel and defensive end Richard Seymour were traded. That left a huge leadership void that persisted throughout the season. They won the AFC East but finished at 10-6 after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to Houston in a 34-27 loss in the finale.
After the 33-14 playoff rout by the Baltimore Ravens, Belichick said, "The rookie players learn a lot every week. ... The second time around, hopefully, it will be an improvement for everybody."
Rookies Julian Edelman, Patrick Chung, Darius Butler, Sebastian Vollmer and Myron Pryor all played quite a bit. Safety Brandon Meriweather, a first-round pick in 2007, had a strong season. Linebacker Jerod Mayo, a first-rounder in 2008, played well although not as well as when he was named defensive rookie of the year by The Associated Press.
But none of those young players has emerged as the leader the Patriots need.
In May, Brady said the Patriots lacked confidence and mental toughness. Improving that, he said then, has "been a big point of emphasis this offseason."
Brady, hampered by finger and rib injuries, threw for fewer than 200 yards in four of his last five games. But he is nearly two years removed from the knee injury that ended his 2008 season in the first game and remains the team leader. He is signed for just one more season. Negotiations for a contract extension have been held without resolution.
A more immediate problem is two-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, a restricted free agent who has said he wants to be traded. Upset with negotiations, he skipped the team's minicamp last month, although he wasn't required to attend because he is unsigned. There was no indication that he would show up for Thursday's first practice.
The news about Wes Welker is much better.
The NFL's most productive wide receiver over the last three seasons with 346 catches has made a strong recovery from surgery in February for a torn ligament in his left knee. He is on the active physically unable to perform list but could be taken off it at any time. There seems to be a good chance of that happening soon since Welker participated in agility drills and caught passes while wearing a brace on his knee during organized team activities on June 2.
If he's ready for the opener on Sept. 12 against Cincinnati, the Patriots would have two of the NFL's best receivers _ Welker and Randy Moss _ to go against Bengals wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. The Patriots also signed Torry Holt, a durable, productive receiver.
But they did nothing to shore up their mediocre running game. And they won't have tight end Benjamin Watson, who spent the last six years with them, or defensive end Jarvis Green, gone after seven seasons. Both left as free agents.
That left New England thin at both positions. At tight end, they signed veteran Alge Crumpler and drafted Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth. On the defensive line, they chose Jermaine Cunningham in the second round and added several free agent veterans.
Starting on Thursday, all will begin the intense process of two practices most days as they try to add their talents to a team looking to rebound from a disappointing season.