- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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In part because of the lack of development of home-grown players, and also due to an unfortunate run of injuries, the New England Patriots have been buyers, not sellers, as they shape their 53-man roster this season.
It has been a change of direction for a club that takes pride in stockpiling draft picks and practicing what owner Robert Kraft calls "quality depth management."
Some might commend the 2010 approach as evidence that coach Bill Belichick will do anything to improve the roster. Others might see it as an ominous sign about the overall quality of talent in the locker room, Belichick acquiring another team's fringe players to fill voids.
Regardless of one's viewpoint, few could argue that the Patriots have taken a U-turn from 2009, when they traded defensive lineman Richard Seymour, tight end David Thomas, offensive lineman Russ Hochstein and defensive lineman Le Kevin Smith in exchange for draft picks.
Those are the types of deals that Belichick generally likes because he gets something in return for players he didn't think would be part of the team's future, or even make the club that year. They are trades that also spoke well to the quality of the Patriots' roster.
The Patriots haven't had any of them this year.
Instead, over the last two weeks, they shipped undisclosed draft choices away for offensive lineman Quinn Ojinnaka, safety Jarrad Page and linebacker Tracy White, all players who weren't part of their original teams' long-term plans.
So it seems fair to ask the question: Is the talent on the Patriots' roster good enough?
Clearly, the Patriots have been let down by their own evaluation and what has unfolded along the offensive line, where draft picks Rich Ohrnberger (2009 fourth round), George Bussey (2009 fifth round), Ted Larsen (2010 sixth round) and Thomas Welch (2010 seventh round) were all waived. In fairness to Bussey, he has a knee injury that dashed his chances of sticking.
So instead, the Patriots acquired Ojinnaka, who costs more and also enters the last year of his contract, thus making him a potential one-year rental.
And speaking of one-year rentals, now the book can be closed on Derrick Burgess, who represents a rather large personnel misstep by Belichick. First, Belichick shipped third- and fifth-round draft choices to Oakland for Burgess last year. That was a steep price for so-so production, and then it was compounded by the 2010 offseason misdiagnosis that Burgess could transition from defensive end to standup outside linebacker.
Belichick doesn't leave himself vulnerable to too much second-guessing, but this is one of the most clear "What was he thinking?" type moves of his 11-year tenure. And that doesn't even consider that Burgess put the team in a tough spot by unexpectedly not reporting to the start of this year's training camp, only to be welcomed back with open arms.
So the Patriots, barring another roster move, will open the season with the same big question mark at outside linebacker they had at the start of the offseason. Tully Banta-Cain will start on the right side and either second-round draft-choice Jermaine Cunningham, Marques Murrell (fourth year) or Rob Ninkovich (fifth year) will start on the left side in the team's 3-4 alignment. Total career NFL starts between that trio: Zero.
That isn't the only question.
Overall, the Patriots have more youth on their initial 53-man roster than any team in Belichick's time as coach, with 22 players who are in their first or second year in the NFL. Several of those players, such as inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Darius Butler, will be thrust into big-time roles. Can they deliver?
Injuries have been a big part of the Patriots' story to this point. The team's depth is already being tested, which has contributed to them being in "buyer" mode for players like Ojinnaka, Page and White while shaping the initial 53-man roster.
Of course, some of their other big decisions, headlined by Burgess, haven't helped the cause either.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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