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Some decisions could be a big deal

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

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DETROIT - Now that the Patriots’ third exhibition game is in the books, the hard work will begin with the roster.

Since the third game is treated as a dress run for the regular season, the starters usually get their most playing time.

The starters won’t play much, if at all, in Thursday night’s exhibition finale against the Giants at Gillette Stadium, so the injury risk to the top half of the roster is minimal.

Now, coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio can truly assess the roster and shape it for the season.

Several players will be cut, but Belichick and Caserio will undertake the tough and imperfect task of deciding which will have trade value.

“Generally speaking, about this time of the year teams will probably have a little bit more dialogue amongst themselves,’’ Caserio said last week. “There will be some discussion back and forth. Teams might say, ‘We’re heavy here, we’re light here,’ so it’s more just, I would say, normal conversation. So, I would anticipate that some of the discussions, probably after the weekend, will probably pick up a little bit more.’’

NFL personnel people are very interested in what the Patriots will decide about their roster, and they expect the team to be active on the trade front in the next two weeks.

The Patriots will probably try to add to their 2012 draft arsenal because it’s a little thinner than Belichick likes. It’s stocked up front. The Patriots have two picks in each of the first two rounds thanks to trades with the Saints (first round) and Raiders (second). They also have their third- and fourth-round picks. But that’s it. The Patriots don’t have a pick in the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds.

Expect the Patriots to rectify that, and this will be their best, if only, chance.

Here’s a look at the players who could bring trade compensation in the coming weeks, according to two personnel executives who have studied the Patriots closely and have scouted them in person during the exhibition season:

Brandon Meriweather, S - He is in the final year of his contract. If the Patriots let him play out the deal and leave in free agency, they would recoup a high compensatory pick. If they cut him, they would get nothing. If the Patriots traded the two-time Pro Bowl selection, he would have a value between the first and third rounds. But executives don’t expect them to part with Meriweather.

“Who are they going to play, [James] Sanders? He’s been hurt,’’ one executive said. “They’re not sure about Sergio [Brown] and then you have Patrick Chung, who is good and is one starter. [James] Ihedigbo is just a special teamer.’’

Said another executive of Meriweather: “I like him. He gambles sometimes and he gets out of position sometimes, but the guy makes a lot of plays. I think Meriweather is their only true free safety. The thing that gets Meriweather in trouble is he tries to make so many plays, he gets himself out of position. Bad angles. Last week against the Buccaneers he blew a coverage, just let the guy go up the field on him against the second or third group. I think he was just trying to make a play. I don’t think they’re going to get rid of him, as much as they don’t like him. I wouldn’t give the guy up. If they don’t think they’re going to sign him back, might as well get something for him. I think that’s smart business.’’

Darius Butler, CB - The 41st overall pick in 2009 has yet to grasp a position on this team despite having outstanding physical tools. Since he was a second-round pick and his game on film has been subpar, Butler would likely draw trade compensation around the fifth round.

“Teams may have had him high on their draft board,’’ an executive said. “Butler, his confidence isn’t good right now. I think a change of scenery would be better for him. Other teams probably feel that way as well. I would try to deal him.’’

Landon Cohen and Darryl Richard, DTs - Both are hot prospects around the league because teams know the Patriots have terrific depth on the defense line. Both could command picks in the fifth- or sixth-round area.

“Landon and Richard have a lot more value because they are former 3-4 guys,’’ an executive said. “Teams would look at them. I don’t know if they’re going to completely get rid of them without trying to get some compensation.’’ Teams would likely wait out the waiver wire for Kade Weston.

Brandon Tate and Matthew Slater, WRs - Tate, a third-round pick in 2009 who had his rookie season wiped out by injury, has not seen the field much this preseason, so teams might find it hard to give up much for him. And some executives think the Patriots will find a way to keep both Tate and Slater, a special-teams standout.

“I would keep Slater because you know what he’s going to give you on special teams, and he’s been having a pretty darn good preseason,’’ one executive said. “But at the same time, they drafted Tate. I don’t think he’s on the bubble. He’s a third-round pick. He’s their only fast guy, really. So I don’t think they’re going to cut him. I think he’ll make it.’’

Lee Smith, TE - Teams are dubious because the Patriots rarely cut rookies who were drafted higher than the sixth round, and Smith was taken in the fifth. It’s not without precedent that the Patriots would cut a player in that round. Tackle Clint Oldenburg (’07) and linebacker Ryan Claridge (’05) didn’t make it to the 53-man roster in their draft years. Making it easier on the Patriots is that undrafted free agent Will Yeatman has outperformed Smith. It almost doesn’t matter which one was drafted.

Jonathan Wilhite, CB - The 2008 fourth-round pick would have minimal, if any, trade value. “Wilhite has been injured, a lot,’’ an executive said. “But there’s some talent there, especially on special teams.’’

Expect the Patriots to be active on the trade front to replenish their 2012 draft. Dealing Butler, Cohen, and Richard would be their best chance to do that.

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

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