New England Patriots

L-R: RB Pierre Strong, OL Cole Strange, QB Bailey Zappe (Photos courtesy USA Today and GoMocs.com)

  • Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft, it was billed as one of the most wild and unexpected in recent history. That prediction ended up coming true, both league-wide and for the Patriots.

    Among the number of trends bent by New England was the usual focus on big-school prospects. Of the schools they’ve historically targeted the most under Belichick, OL Andrew Stueber of Michigan was the only player adding to that list.

    Meanwhile, they took players from five non-Power Five schools – OL Cole Strange from Cattanooga, CB Marcus Jones from Houston, RB Pierre Strong from South Dakota State, QB Bailey Zappe from Western Kentucky, and DL Sam Roberts from Northwest Missouri State. That’s the most they’ve taken in a single draft since conference realignment in the early 2010’s. Of those five, four spent the majority of if not their entire collegiate careers at non-FBS schools, which is the most by the team in the Belichick era. (Jones is the exception, having played for Troy and then a Houston program that has been one of the best Group of Five schools since realignment and will join the Big 12 in 2023.)

    While it varies some from position-to-position, for the most part small school players as a whole aren’t any more or less likely to pan out than their bigger school counterparts. However, that comes from a significantly smaller sample size. That’s in part due to the fact that smaller school players can be more difficult to evaluate and project due to the level of competition they face. When looking at those players, teams may put more importance on showcase bowls (ex. Senior Bowl, Shrine Bowl) or games against teams from higher levels.

    For the Patriots’ first three small school prospects, both boxes are checked. Strange and Zappe both took part in the Senior Bowl, while Strong and Roberts were Shrine Bowl participants. The team got a chance to see all three working against elite competition back in January.

    What really stands out though is the production all three had against elite competition. Strong got two chances to face Power Five teams over the last three years in a pair of SEC opponents. The Mocs – an FCS team out of the Southern Conference or SoCon – took on Tennessee in 2019, and Kentucky last year. In each of those games, Strange allowed no sacks, just one QB hit, and one pressure. PFF gave him an 80.9 run blocking grade for the game against Kentucky, which ended up finishing the season ranked 18th in the nation.

  • Strong got two chances to face FBS talent while playing at FCS South Dakota State, including one matchup against a Power Five team.

    When Strong was a sophomore, the Jackrabbits faced a Big Ten opponent in Minnesota in the season opener. Against the Golden Gophers – who finished that season ranked 10th – Strong carries the ball 12 times for 53 yards averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He also caught two passes for 59 yards including a 39 yarder, and had a 47 yard kickoff return.

    Two years later, the Jackrabbits returned to FBS play taking on Colorado State. That proved to be a breakout game for Strong, who ran for 138 yards on just 13 carries and found the endzone twice. In terms of yards per carry, it was his best game of the season. When speaking with Patriots media after being drafted, Strong cited that performance the moment he realized the NFL may be a possibility.

    “Going into my senior year, man, I felt like I just was feeling great, playing a very good opponent, had a great game versus a very good opponent team,” Strong recalled. “That’s the game everybody looks at, so it’s just, that game right there, I just felt like I could take the game to the next level.”

    ” I always felt like I could get on that level, but it was just – that’s the game I felt like everyone wanted to see,” Strong continued, noting the importance of the elevated competition level. “Just me playing against a non-FCS opponent or FBS opponent so, it’s showing that I can do that versus a FBS opponent, I could do that on any level.”

  • Although Zappe saw more time against FBS opponents than the previous two players, having spent his fifth and final season at C-USA Western Kentucky, that isn’t his only experience against elite competition. During his first four years at Houston Baptist – another SoCon team – the Huskies faced four FBS opponents.

    That began in 2018, when they faced SMU. It wasn’t a dominant performance by any means, but Zappe certainly held his own. He completed 55 percent of his 49 pass attempts for 226 yards with two touchdowns and just one interception. He also ran for 42 yards on nine carries.

    During the COVID-shortened 2020 season, HBU played three of its four games against FBS teams. That’s when Zappe really started taking over. In the opener against C-USA North Texas, he completed 62 percent of his 62 passes for 480 yards and three touchdowns, while taking just one sack and not throwing a pick. In another C-USA game against Louisiana Tech, he completed 64 percent of 58 pass attempts, this time throwing for 406 yards and five scores with just one pick. He also ran for 34 yards on five carries.

    However, his best game at HBU came against the toughest opponent in Texas Tech, a Power Five school out of the Big 12. Facing a defense that ended up allowing just 258.5 passing yards per game that season, Zappe went 30-of-49 for 567 yards with four touchdowns and no picks as the Huskies nearly pulled up the upset losing 35-33. The 567 yards are the most by an FCS quarterback against an FBS opponent since the two levels split in 1978.

  • Even when Zappe made the jump to the FBS level, transferring to Western Kentucky for the 2021 season, he continued to punch above his weight class. He got two chances to face Power Five opponents last season in a pair of Big Ten teams in Indiana and Michigan State.

    Against Indiana, Zappe completed 70.5 percent of his passes for 365 yards and three touchdowns. The next week, against a Spartans team that would finish the season ranked eighth nationally, Zappe completed 72 percent of his throws, this time throwing for 488 yards and another three scores.

    There’s one other game from Zappe’s 2021 season that stands out, although it didn’t come against a Power Five team. In the Boca Raton Bowl, the Hilltoppers faced an Appalachian State team that to that point ranked 17th in total defense among all FBS teams, and was allowing 325 total yards per game. Zappe completed 24-of-31 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns – just in the first half. He finished the game 46-of-64 with 488 yards and six touchdowns.

  • Perhaps the most impressive thing about all of these performances from Zappe though isn’t all the positive plays, but the lack of negative ones. Elevated video game-like numbers aren’t totally unheard of for quarterbacks in such pass-heavy offenses (although Bailey took it to another level, setting new FBS records for passing yards and TDs in 2021), but they’re usually just volume stats that comes with elevated negatives as well.

    That wasn’t the case for Zappe. Despite leading all FBS passers with 687 pass attempts, his 1.6 percent interception rate was the 18th lowest among all qualified passers. He was also one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in college football despite all those drop backs. In the three games mentioned above, he was sacked just four times total and didn’t throw a single interception.

    For Roberts, this exercise doesn’t quite transfer given Northwest Missouri State never played any Division-I opponents. However, we can look at how he performed against the best of the best at the Division-II level.

    In four years at NMSU, Roberts played in nine playoff games. In those games, Roberts had nine tackles for a loss, including 1.5 sacks with five quarterback hits. He also forced a fumble and blocked two kicks.

    Following the 2021 season, Roberts gave the Patriots plenty of chances to see him against a higher level of competition. The Cliff Harris Award winner – an award given to the best non-Division-I player in the country that was also won by Kyle Dugger – took part in the Hula Bowl in addition to the Shrine Bowl.

    When it comes to the Patriots’ 2022 draft class, there are a few themes that carried through all three days. Speed is a big one, with the team drafting both the fastest wide receiver and running back from the NFL Combine. The small school additions were another, and within those picks is a theme itself – they all performed their best on the biggest stage. As they begin their NFL careers, that experience will likely be something they can lean on.