The Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick have never cared about mine or your mock drafts.
Over the last two decades, Belichick is notorious for going against the grain with his selections, with pick after pick labeled “reaches” by pundits.
In true Belichick fashion, New England’s first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft was another consensus-bucking selection in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga guard Cole Strange.
According to a consensus board by The Athletic’s Arif Hasan, which combines more than 80 big boards of prominent media analysts, Strange was the biggest first-round reach in the 2022 draft. Strange’s average rank was 76th, a third-round selection, while the Pats took him 29th overall.
Although Belichick’s recent draft history is leading to more distrust nowadays, Strange’s position coach at Chattanooga painted a picture of a tough, athletic, and studious newest member of the Patriots.
In an interview with CLNS Media, Chattanooga offensive assistant Ricky Spradling brought to light why the Patriots became enamored enough with Strange to draft him in the first round.
“He doesn’t have any friends on the football field. He’s nasty. He’s tenacious. He’s a high-effort guy. He’s exactly what you want mentality-wise when it comes to an offensive lineman.”
“A lot of our runs were going to the left because Cole was on the left,” Spradling told CLNS Media.
Spradling began our conversation by explaining the coaching turnover that impacted Strange’s career with the Mocs and how a 250-pound 19-year-old became a 307-pound first-round pick by the Patriots.
When Strange arrived on campus, the now 6-foot-5 and 307-pound guard was 255 pounds. The Chattanooga staff knew Strange needed to add weight to play interior offensive line, but Spradling was in awe of how Strange bulked up without losing his athleticism.
Cole Strange was drafted with pick 29 of round 1 in the 2022 draft class. He scored a 9.95 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 7 out of 1298 OG from 1987 to 2022. https://t.co/RRKLKRSIJK #RAS #Patriots pic.twitter.com/FxExB6k1sR
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 29, 2022
At the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine, Strange tested with a relative athletic score of 9.95 out of ten, which ranks seventh out of 1,298 guards from 1987 to 2022, a truly elite athletic profile.
“When you watch him squat, the bar is bending, but he can touch his butt all the way to his ankles, and he can do a full split at 310 pounds. So it shows how flexible he was able to stay while maintaining that weight and putting on strength. You see him open up and run, and you’re like the dude not only got strong, but he can move,” Sprangling continued.
Strange’s elite athleticism was on full display in Chattanooga’s outside zone heavy scheme, “as far as outside zone goes, I think he is built for that scheme. He has an extremely fast first step.”
New England’s first-round pick’s physical development and journey to the NFL through the FCS level made Spradling think of a Patriots-specific comparison when we spoke by phone on Monday afternoon.
“I coached in the same league as Kyle Dugger. To me, Kyle and Cole have similar qualities. They dominated their level. When we played against [Kyle Dugger], he dominated that level. Then, watching Cole go through our conference, he dominates our level.”
In my review of Strange’s film at Chatanooga, his performance against SEC competition in Kentucky solidified a positive feeling towards the pick, and Spradling also pointed to that game.
“He’s going against Kentucky, whose line, in my opinion, they’ve got a pretty salty front. He’s dominating and doing a great job against them. So after we saw him competing against some of those bigger-level guys, we knew that there are not many guys out there he couldn’t block.”
The Patriots are also known for putting a premium on prospects who perform well at the Senior Bowl, where both Strange and Dugger solidified their stocks as top prospects.
“I think he was at a different speed than everybody else at the Senior Bowl. He’s reaching the hell out of a bunch of really good D-Linemen,” Spradling told me.
Currently the wide receivers coach, Spradling wore two hats during the COVID-impacted season in the spring of 2021 as the Mocs running backs and offensive line coach.
“We didn’t have an offensive line coach, so I jumped over there for the spring. To be honest with you, I leaned on Cole and a couple of those older guys to help us get through the spring season.”
Spradling described a player who has a good grasp not only of what the offense is trying to accomplish but also defensive fronts and alignments, adding, “he’s got a good idea on fonts, linebacker alignments and stunts, and safeties giving away certain pressures. He’s picked a lot of that up.”
“When we go out there for practice, he’s out there pre-practice working his technique, punching sleds, or doing some type of footwork drill,” Spradling continued. “I think he’s dominant because he gives extra effort. He’s always in here watching film and asking coaches questions.”
Strange’s athletic ability thrives in a zone-blocking system, but New England is known for their downhill rushing attack as a power football team that majors in gap schemes.
Although that sounds like an odd fit, Spradling sees Strange excelling in both blocking schemes.
“He was the only one we let pull. We didn’t let the other guard on the other side [pull block]. It was only Cole. He’ll have no problem with any of that other stuff.”
In pass protection, Strange only gave up one sack over the last four seasons with the Mocs, according to Pro Football Focus.
“The best part about his pass sets is if he gets his hands on [a pass-rusher], it’s over. He moves his feet well enough. If he can get engaged and gets his hands on, a lot of defenders really have trouble because he knows how to anchor down and move his feet.”
The Patriots have two voids along their offensive line after trading Shaq Mason to Tampa Bay and losing reliable veteran Ted Karras in free agency.
With standout third-year pro Michael Onwenu filling one vacant guard spot, it was the expectation going into the 2022 draft that Bill Belichick would look for another starting-caliber guard at some point.
Although drafting Strange from Chattanooga was the stunner of the first round last Thursday night, the deeper you dive into New England’s top selection, the more the player stands out.
As his former position coach said, “he’s the type of kid where he plays the game the right way.”
The Patriots might not care about your mock drafts, but they clearly emphasized protecting second-year quarterback Mac Jones when they drafted Cole Strange.