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New England Patriots Waging Risk vs. Reward at NFL Trade Deadline

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COMMENTARY | The NFL trade deadline serves as a last-chance opportunity for teams to exchange players or draft picks in preparation for the home stretch of the season.

But by 4 p.m. EDT on Oct. 29, that last-chance opportunity will be closed.

The New England Patriots are well aware of it. And history tells us that head coach Bill Belichick and Co. are not afraid to strike deals if the circumstance calls for it.

Over the last several Octobers, the Patriots have turned negotiations into transactions. In 2010, the team sent wide receiver Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings for a 2011 third-round pick, which ended up being quarterback Ryan Mallett. A week later, New England shipped a 2011 fourth-round pick -- linebacker K.J. Wright -- to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for wideout Deion Branch. And just last fall, the Pats swung a 2013 fourth-rounder -- ultimately defensive end William Gholston -- to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for cornerback Aqib Talib and a 2013 seventh-round selection in defensive end Michael Buchanan.

Every year is different. Teams don't simply trade for the sake of trading; teams trade to boost areas of need or, based on the trajectory of the season, free financial space.

The Patriots' current state leads us to believe the former is a possibility. Through the Week 8 mark, head coach Bill Belichick and Co. find themselves 6-2 and on pace to make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive campaign.

Nevertheless, the roster is forging through adaptation.

The return of two-time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski has eased the absence of an in-line receiving threat. Yet for all intents and purposes, the offense is fielding primarily "11" personnel with one running back and one tight end -- a stark contrast from the last three seasons of a dual-tight end dynamic.

If New England were to add a flex or "Y" tight end at this juncture, CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora reports that the Washington Redskins' Fred Davis, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Marcedes Lewis -- who's on the books for five years and $34 million -- and, for a high price of picks, the Cleveland Browns' Jordan Cameron could be available.

Most, if not all, of those options appear unrealistic.

In regards to the outside, the young collection of receivers -- which includes three rookies in Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce -- has shown some signs of progression and chemistry with 14-year veteran QB Tom Brady. There has not, however, been a shortage in discussion about potentially bolstering the group with a proven commodity.

As La Canfora also noted, the Patriots are in a tier of organizations "deep in the process" of finding another target. The New York Giants' Hakeem Nicks, the Browns' Josh Gordon and Greg Little, the Tennessee Titans' Kenny Britt and the San Francisco 49ers' Jon Baldwin are available. And each has their reasons for availability.

But the amount of proven commodities available at the right financial and developmental price is difficult to truly determine. Ability doesn't always coincide with the learning curve of a half-season schedule. It doesn't always translate to the financial cutoff come unrestricted free agency in March. It doesn't always pan out when the draft rolls around in April or May, either.

New England's offense has yet to run on all cylinders. And the serious right leg injury suffered by right tackle Sebastian Vollmer in Week 8 will not help, but it will thrust 2011 fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon into the mix. In light of that investment, it would come as a surprise to see the Patriots find an alternative starting-caliber bookend via trade. The fair-market value likely isn't there.

This leads us to the Patriots' defensive side of the ball -- an injury-laden group searching for continuity on a snap-to-snap and game-to-game basis.

Five-time Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork tore his right Achilles tendon in Week 4 and landed on injured reserve shortly thereafter. His comrade, pass-rushing interior lineman Tommy Kelly, suffered a right knee injury in Week 5 and hasn't played since. In Week 6, two-time Pro-Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo tore his right pectoral muscle and became the second team captain to fall on I.R. And also during that tilt, the aforementioned Talib strained his hip flexor and has yet to reemerge.

In wake of the attrition, New England has turned to more 3-4, 3-5 and 4-2 defensive alignments where the focus has been on utilizing strength and minimizing weakness.

In turn, the likes of defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, rookie linebacker Jamie Collins as well as Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower and Dane Fletcher have seen the field together. In the process, defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have flexed to defensive tackle and outside linebacker, maintaining interchangeability across the front. And at corner, rookie Logan Ryan and special teamer Marquice Cole have played expanded roles.

Will the Patriots continue to trust versatility and scheme, optimizing the in-house talent, particularly at defensive tackle and linebacker? Some intriguing names have been floated around, but holding tight might be the best bet -- barring fair value, especially at a position like nose tackle.

Now, expansion and erosion are battles that all 32 organizations encounter. Though, as Belichick noted in his Oct. 25 press conference, trades for the short-term are not always cost-effective for the long haul.

"How quickly can you get him ready, how productive will it be, was it really worth it?" said Belichick. "Is it worth it to the team who is trading away the player to get not very much for somebody versus just keeping him and playing with him even though you get something for him but it isn't really worth it?"

Whatever New England does or does not do at the trade deadline will ultimately come down to feasibility and sacrifice. It will be a question of immediate versus distant future, risk versus reward.

And there might not be a right answer.

Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for NEPatriotsDraft.com. His work has been featured on BleacherReport.com, TheFootballEducator.com, USAToday.com, Patriots.com, Boston.com and NESN.com.

You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.

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