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Forgoing a fire sale was the right move for Patriots, who need to start signing their own players

Hunter Henry (right) is a good example of a Patriot whose contract is about to expire this offseason but who should be re-signed.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The 2-6 Patriots, last in the AFC and going nowhere this season, ultimately decided not to be sellers at the NFL trade deadline Tuesday.

They didn’t trade any of their impending free agents, which include safety Kyle Dugger, defensive end Josh Uche, guard Mike Onwenu, and tight end Hunter Henry. They didn’t acquire any extra draft capital for what figures to be a multiyear rebuild coming up.

And you know what? Good!

A fire sale would have been a huge mistake.

It’s not that the Patriots should expect a miraculous turnaround this season. And it’s not that they couldn’t use the extra mid-round picks that their veterans could have fetched in trade.


It’s that enough is enough with the Patriots letting their talented young players leave in free agency and get paid by other teams.

Time and again over the last decade, a player developed into a legitimate NFL starter in New England but had to go elsewhere to find his riches.

That trend is a major reason why the Patriots are 2-6 entering Sunday’s game against Washington, with arguably the least talented roster in the NFL. By letting their top players leave, the Patriots created a major talent drain as well as a leadership and culture void.

They traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in 2015 when it was time to pay him. They traded Jamie Collins to the Browns in 2016. They let the Titans pay Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, and Dion Lewis in 2017. They traded Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers in 2017 because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, find a creative way to keep him. Trey Flowers got money from the Lions in 2018. Joe Thuney got his from the Chiefs in 2021, J.C. Jackson from the Chargers in 2022.


The Patriots kept only players who were willing to take team-friendly discounts, such as Dont’a Hightower, Shaq Mason, James White, Deatrich Wise, and Ja’Whaun Bentley.

That worked when Tom Brady was here, winning 14 games a year and convincing everyone else to take less money to win more championships. It helped to have Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman locked in to reasonable contracts, too.

It certainly doesn’t work now, with Mac Jones and a roster that may be the worst in the NFL.

If the Patriots want to return to relevance, they have to start operating like the other 31 teams and paying market prices to their talented, homegrown players.

Chandler Jones made three Pro Bowls with the Cardinals after leaving New England.Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

Yes, they need to hit the reset button in 2024 — if not with the coaching staff, then certainly with the roster. They definitely need to go young and start prioritizing the draft. They probably need two straight years of excellent drafting to get back to a truly competitive level.

But they don’t need to tear the team down to the studs first. An NFL team can be competitive while also rebuilding. The Patriots need veterans to lead the way while the youngsters develop, both on the field and in the locker room. Plus, when building a locker room, young players need to see that their hard work will be rewarded by the Patriots.

Yes, the Patriots’ potential trade options all have flaws. Dugger will be 28 next year and isn’t great playing in space. Onwenu has struggled with injuries. Uche isn’t great against the run.


But it’s time for the Patriots to start focusing on their positives instead of their flaws. Dugger is a playmaker, with 8 interceptions, 2 sacks, and 2 touchdowns the last three years. Onwenu is a solid, versatile interior lineman. Uche can get after the quarterback, one of the most sought-after skills in the NFL. Myles Bryant, another impending free agent, can play several positions in the secondary.

The Patriots don’t have to bring them all back, but they should keep most. Who cares if they have to overpay by their standards? Retaining talent needs to be the top priority.

The Patriots should even look to bring back veterans who will be on their third contract. The old Patriots would let Henry and Kendrick Bourne walk after their three-year deals expire this offseason. But those guys are full-blown Patriots now, and productive ones, so why not bring them back?

Henry will be only 29 next year and will be a good security blanket for whoever is playing quarterback. Bourne was playing really well before his ACL injury, and now probably could be re-signed to a reasonable two-year deal.

Hunter Henry, only 29, might be the right player for the Patriots to sign long-term. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

There’s another reason the Patriots need to start re-signing their own players — it’s really the only way to succeed in today’s NFL. Teams have spending minimums, and free agency has become a wasteland, by and large.

The best way to hit spending minimums is to develop good players and then pay them accordingly. Only when the foundation is set does it make sense to add big-ticket free agents, as the 49ers and Eagles have done in recent years.


The crop of players to hit free agency last March was uninspiring, a bunch of B-level players that their teams didn’t want anymore. Those free agents are almost all having terrible seasons.

The Patriots learned that lesson the hard way in 2021, when they tried to take a shortcut back to relevance with a $175 million free agency spending spree instead of investing in the draft. They landed a few good players — Matthew Judon was a home run, Henry is solid, and Bourne had had his moments — but otherwise they wasted money on average players. Even worse, they built a locker room of mercenaries who have no emotional attachment to the team culture.

The Patriots have done everything wrong since the final years of the Brady era. They haven’t drafted well. They haven’t invested in the right positions (quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end). They haven’t retained their own talent. And they tried to make up for it with other teams’ free agents.

The most practical way to build a consistent winner in today’s NFL is to draft, develop, and spend money on your own players.

The lack of action by the Patriots at Tuesday’s trade deadline might be a sign that they are finally figuring that out.

Ben Volin can be reached at