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Bill Belichick goes young with Patriots roster

You know how many “big” free agents are going to start on the Patriots this season? Two: Brandon Lloyd (above) and safety Steve Gregory.

Globe Staff/File

You know how many “big” free agents are going to start on the Patriots this season? Two: Brandon Lloyd (above) and safety Steve Gregory.

Some thoughts while pondering what the nickname should be for the 2012 Patriots. How about Belichick’s Bambinos?

This is by far the youngest Opening Day roster coach Bill Belichick has assembled with the Patriots. The average age of New England’s roster right now (the team could have added four more tight ends late Sunday night) is 25 years, 274 days, according to STATS, LLC. That’s more than a year younger than the 2010 squad (26-280). The third-youngest team was Belichick’s first, the 5-11 juggernauts of 2000 (26-329).

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Where the youth really shows up is on defense. The average age of the starters is 25. The only other Belichick team to be under 27 was the ’10 version at 25.1, according to numbers from Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Average Opening Day ages for the championship teams: 27-177 (’01), 28-120 (’03), and 27-194 (’04). Defenses: 28.7, 30, 28.7.

That means, basically, the rebuilding effort started in 2007 on defense with the drafting of Brandon Meriweather (now on his third team with the Redskins) was not overly successful, and they are in another phase of it this season. At least the Patriots have some, in theory, stud pieces to do it with two first-round picks (end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower) and second-round pick Tavon Wilson. They are also getting Ras-I Dowling back at nickel cornerback as basically another high pick after his rookie season was washed out. It looks like this phase should work on paper, but we’ll have to see it on the field.

Why did the Patriots, in what used to feel like was an “all-in, go-for-it, cover-every-base bid to get another Super Bowl title” season, decide to part with experience now? Part of it was the key older players they cut (Dan Koppen, Deion Branch, James Ihedigbo, Bobby Carpenter, and Brian Hoyer) either weren’t better than the other players, or the difference wasn’t that great, so why spend more money?

I also think part of it was the Patriots know — more than most teams — that there is going to be a salary-cap squeeze in ’13 and ’14 before the cap starts to get larger in ’15. The average age of the cut veterans was 29.6. In base salary, they were due a combined $5.1 million this season.

The replacements (Nick McDonald, Greg Salas, Nate Ebner, Mike Rivera, and Ryan Mallett) average 24.2 years, and are due to make a combined $2.23 million this season. Under the new CBA, extra cap money can be rolled over every season.

Of course, the Patriots have only themselves to blame for having to watch their spending a little because of their own drafting (2006-09) and consequent free agent whiffs.

Between Chad Ochocinco and Shaun Ellis last year, and Jonathan Fanene, Robert Gallery, Koppen, Branch, Jabar Gaffney, Joseph Addai, Tony Fiammetta, Carpenter, and Ihedigbo, the Patriots spent nearly $11 million in signing bonuses and got absolutely nothing in return.

The Patriots hit on some that were very cost effective, like Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, but $11 million is a big bagel to swallow. That’s money wasted when if they were just a tad better at drafting and didn’t have to rely on free agent retreads, they could have saved a ton of cash and reinvested that in the roster (Wes Welker anyone?).

Free agency is fool’s gold. You’re trolling in other people’s trash, and you can make a lot of mistakes, especially on medical evaluations. Have you noticed how many ex-Patriots have flamed out in other places? Teams don’t let good players go as much anymore, since nearly all the teams are good at managing the cap now.

You know how many “big” free agents are going to start on the Patriots this season? Two: Brandon Lloyd and safety Steve Gregory. Every other starter is homegrown. Draft, develop, and reward. The Patriots finally have their system where they want it after the last three drafts, which look like they’re going to be bountiful. It really sets up the team down the road.

When the media brings up how poorly the Patriots drafted for a stretch, defenders always counter it by saying that it hasn’t hurt the Patriots. In regular-season wins and losses, no it hasn’t. Thank goodness for Belichick, Tom Brady, and AFC East because the combination of the drafting and free agency blunders would absolutely cripple most teams.

The thing is, it was even puzzling the Patriots brought back some of those guys (specifically Koppen, Branch, and Ihedigbo) when it wouldn’t hurt them to go younger. On top of that, the Patriots gave them signing bonuses. Puzzling.

Then there’s Hoyer. If Brady were injured against the Titans, I still think Hoyer would have given the team the best chance to win. But I can understand the thinking of not wanting to pay a backup quarterback $1.9 million when he wasn’t that much better than the much-cheaper Mallett.

But I don’t think they should have been in that position. I go back to the second-round restricted free agent tender that Hoyer, an undrafted player, received. The Patriots could have only asked for right of first refusal ($1.26 million), and then gauged any trade interest in Hoyer. If they had any inkling that they could go with Mallett, then the Patriots could make a decision at that time. It seems that the team wasted value because it successfully mined and developed a player who could compete for a starting spot somewhere next year.

Never mind the fact that the Patriots really hurt Hoyer by waiting until now to release him — when all the rosters are set and it’s too late for him to learn a new system to help early in the season. It’s not like you can just slip a quarterback into the lineup.

I’m increasingly starting to believe, from the free agent missteps to questionable decisions such as Hoyer’s tender, that the Patriots’ real front office is solely in Belichick’s head, and when he decides to let his lieutenants in on his thinking, it’s very late, they have to scramble, things get rushed, and there isn’t enough time for someone to say, “Hey Bill, maybe we want to think about this a different way.” If there is anybody who can do that after Scott Pioli left, that is.

Amazing that the Patriots still haven’t developed a receiver on their own. Julian Edelman should get the ball more this season, but he’s it.

Fans get attached to certain players, but the Patriots can do better than Branch at 33 years old. At least they need to try. Plus, between Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and a running back, the Patriots need two more receivers on the field: Lloyd and Welker. There will be times when you see one or zero receivers as they go with three or four tight ends, not to mention a fullback eventually. As long as Lloyd stays healthy, the Patriots have the missing boundary piece they need in the tight end-heavy offense. Branch was not that.

There are always drawbacks in assembling rosters certain ways, and by going younger, the Patriots are basically operating with less of a net. The biggest areas of concern are backups at quarterback, running back, offensive tackle, end, and linebacker.

I’m not really worried about backup running back, even though the durability of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead is troubling. It’s not like this is ground and pound. Brandon Bolden has a solid future, but it feels as if this could be a little bit too soon if the season comes down to him in the playoffs.

Still have my doubts whether Marcus Cannon is a tackle — and I know some in the organization have that same question — so having him as the lone backup to Sebastian Vollmer, who really looks stiff after back problems, is scary. It would be fine if you had a proven commodity on the left side, such as a Matt Light. Talk about working without a net if Nate Solder struggles. I do, however, think the Patriots will be fine on the line.

I don’t have any further clarity on the Brian Waters situation. What I’ve been able to glean is that Waters is in the spot that many aging veterans get to: it gets harder and harder to leave home (Waters lives in Texas). Would he be with the team if it were closer to his home? Would more money get him on a plane for one final go? Maybe on both, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s over with Waters yet. In the interim, the Patriots will more than survive with Ryan Wendell at center and Dan Connolly at right guard.

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