Projecting the NFL Draft is a lot of following trends. It’s taking a close look and what teams historically do or don’t do. That becomes easier when the same person has been leading the personnel department for over two decades.
That being said, trends are made to be broken. In many ways, that’s what the Patriots did when they took Chattanooga IOL Cole Strange 29th overall in the 2022 NFL Draft Thursday night. The selection goes against the grain somewhat compared to how the Patriots have generally operated under Bill Belichick.
Of course, Strange’s small school background stands out. While the Patriots like to explore all their options and aren’t afraid to take small school prospects (and usually with some success, ex. Kyle Dugger), it’s not often they do so in the first round. Of the now 20 first round picks made by Belichick in New England, 18 were from Power Five schools. The other was Logan Mankins from Fresno State in 2005. Strange is the first FCS player taken in the first round by the Patriots since they took running back John Stephens from Northwestern State 17th overall in 1988.
It’s not uncommon for the Patriots to take an offensive lineman in the draft. They’ve used more picks at the position than any other, taking at least one lineman in 17 of 22 (now 18 of 23) drafts since 2000, and multiple linemen in 14 of those 17. After not taking any linemen in 2012 or 2013, they’ve taken at least one every year since. However, of those 16 players, only three were taken in the top 100 and only one was taken in the top 50 (Isaiah Wynn, 23rd overall in 2018).
When the Patriots do draft linemen high, they’ve traditionally taken tackles. Of the five linemen they’d taken in the top 50 under Belichick before Thursday night, only one (Mankins, 32nd overall) was a true guard. Even expanding the view to the top 100, there’s only one other true guard (Joe Thuney) among the nine players.
While Strange does break a lot of trends, his selection is not totally unprecedented – but it does turn back the comp. There’s a lot in common with the 2005 selection of Mankins. They are the only two non-Power Five first round picks made by Belichick, and both are guards who were seen as over-drafted at the time.
Selecting strange also continues a more recently-developed trend for the Patriots. Their last three top picks have all be relatively older compared to average draft prospects. Kyle Dugger was 24 when they drafted him in 2020, Mac Jones was 23 last year. Strange will turn 24 this summer.
Another indication the Patriots would have been high on Strange is his Senior Bowl participation. It’s an event the Patriots focus on closely – 40 percent of all of their draft picks since 2008 played in the game. Strange was one of the standouts in Mobile earlier this year.
The Patriots took care of one other trend last night, not in picking Strange but trading back beforehand. With that deal with the Chiefs, they’re now up to 11 total picks (10 remaining). Over the last 10 years, they’ve averaged 8.6 selections per draft, and have made at least nine picks in seven of those 10 drafts. This their current draft capital, they’re in position to move up while still making a significant number of selections.
What trends should we be keeping an eye on heading into Friday night? The biggest pattern for the Patriots on Day 2 involves defensive linemen and edge rushers. They’ve taken at least one front seven player in the second or third round in each of the last three drafts, and in six of the last seven. They’ve doubled up at that spot the last two years, drafting Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings in 2020 and Christian Barmore and Ronnie Perkins in 2021.
The Patriots are currently scheduled to have three picks on Day 2, at 54 (second round), 85, and 94 (both third round). They’ve traded up on Day 2 in each of the last five years.
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