For two decades the Patriots were the envy of the NFL. They were admired, respected, and, most importantly, feared.
Now they are, apparently, a laughingstock.
It’s all right there in a video from the Rams draft party Thursday night. Los Angeles general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay were blown away when the Patriots selected Tennessee-Chattanooga guard Cole Strange with the 29th pick.
“Oh my!” Snead said.
“How ‘bout that!” McVay responded. “And we wasted our time watching him, thinking he’d be at 104 maybe! Hahahahaha.”
Fans, media, and draft experts also were quick to react negatively. ESPN’s Mel Kiper thought Strange might have a chance to go late in the second round and called it a “huge reach.’'
NFL.com gave the Patriots a “D” in its first-round report card.
It’s one thing for the assorted pundits to criticize the first-round pick. It’s quite another for another NFL franchise to confirm our suspicions that the Patriots way overreached.
The Rams’ pick at No. 104 is at the very end of the third round. That’s where they expected Strange to land. It was such a surprising pick, McVay couldn’t contain himself.
He definitely wasn’t the only one.
“I was admittedly surprised that [Strange] went in the first,” an AFC executive said. “To my knowledge, most teams had him anywhere from Rounds 2-4 on their boards. Most at the bottom 2/top 3, but I think third round was too low. I thought he was likely to go somewhere in Round 2.”
The Strange pick might look to an outsider like another case of Belichick zigging when everyone expects him to zag. But it’s really just a case of Belichick taking the easy way out. He’s choosing an iron off the tee and playing for par.
Belichick surely hears the criticism about his drafts of the past decade. Surely he knows he didn’t hit on a first-round pick between Dont’a Hightower in 2012 and Mac Jones in 2021. And surely he knows Robert Kraft told the media that he wants to rebuild the Patriots through the draft.
So taking a guard in the first round is safe. In four years, we’ll look back and say, “Cole Strange: Hit. Solid pick by Belichick.” Strange will help Belichick’s draft legacy.
“He’s going to be a good starter — a ‘high floor’ player,” the AFC executive said. “At worst, he’s an above-average starter. He profiled as one of the most athletic interior offensive linemen in the draft. He can start at guard or center. He resembles the Joe Thuney/Logan Mankins type of guard that the Patriots have had over the years.”
But guard might be the least impactful starting position on the field — definitely in the bottom three. The Washington Commanders had a terrific guard in Brandon Scherff, and they were still terrible. The Bengals practically ignored their offensive line last year and were minutes away from winning the Super Bowl. No team is ever a guard away from a championship.
Strange probably will be a fine professional football player. Maybe even a great one.
That’s not the point. Strange could make 10 Pro Bowls, and this was still a terrible pick.
The Patriots, who got their doors blown off by the Bills in the playoffs, have so many other needs to fill. Cornerback. Linebacker. Defensive tackle. Wide receiver.
Those are impact positions that are also glaring holes on the roster. You can find starting guards in the middle rounds — as the Patriots did with Thuney in the third, Shaq Mason in the fourth, and Ted Karras in the sixth. You need to take the important players — the ones who score touchdowns or prevent touchdowns — at the top of the draft.
The Patriots need a receiver to compete with the Stefon Diggses and Tyreek Hills of the AFC East. They need a cornerback to replace J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore. They want to get faster, per Patriots personnel director Matt Groh, especially on defense.
They could have drafted cornerback Trent McDuffie, whom the Chiefs took with the 21st pick acquired in the trade. They could have drafted cornerback Kaiir Elam, who went 23rd to the Bills. Or linebacker Devin Lloyd, who went 27th to the Jaguars.
Instead, the Patriots traded back and took a guard from Chattanooga.
Guard was definitely a hole for the Patriots — one of their own making. They decided not to re-sign Karras, who got a modest three-year, $18 million deal with the Bengals. They decided to trade Mason, who is due two years and $16 million, for a fifth-round pick.
Strange is five years younger than Mason and Karras (though he will be 24 this year, old for a rookie), and will sign a contract worth about $12 million over four years. So the Patriots got younger at guard, and better value.
But they definitely haven’t gotten better. At best, it’s a lateral move. Last year’s Patriots may have finished 10-7 and made the playoffs with a rookie quarterback, but they fell apart in December and January. Filling a hole at guard gets them no closer to competing for the AFC championship.
The Patriots started filling other needs Friday night. With their first pick of the second round, they traded up to No. 50 and took receiver Tyquan Thornton from Baylor. Thornton, on paper, fills a need —– he’s 6 feet 2 inches and is an absolute burner, running a 4.28 in the 40, one of the fastest times ever at the NFL Combine.
He also is another player the Patriots drafted too early, according to the draftniks. Kiper had Thornton going in the fourth round. Dane Brugler of The Athletic had him in the fifth round. The Patriots took him in the second, the 10th receiver taken off the board. If Thornton pans out, then all’s well that ends well. If he is yet another Patriots receiver bust, it will put another spotlight on Strange, and why the Patriots didn’t take a better playmaker with their 29th pick.
Belichick is probably more right than McVay about Strange. Belichick has a solid history of evaluating offensive linemen, and Strange certainly was viewed favorably by the NFL scouting community. Even though he played at a lower level of college football, Strange was invited to the Senior Bowl and was considered a top-three-round prospect who could potentially start as a rookie. He’ll probably be a solid Patriot.
But they could have found a guard later in the draft. They missed an opportunity to fill a more important need. And the rest of the NFL is laughing.
Read more draft stories
- Resetting the Day 2 draft board for the pick-laden Patriots: Could a receiver be in play?
- See all the Patriots’ picks
- Scouting Cole Strange, the obscure offensive lineman the Patriots took in the first round
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.