When evaluating New England Patriots first-round pick Cole Strange, it’s important to separate the player from the draft slot.
Did the Patriots select Strange far earlier (29th overall after an eight-spot trade-down) than anyone expected him to go? Yes.
Could they have gotten the Chattanooga offensive lineman on Day 2? Probably.
Is it questionable business to use a Round 1 pick on any guard or center, especially when you, as a franchise, have a long history of finding good and great ones in the middle rounds or later? Certainly. And if any of the highly touted defensive prospects New England passed on to take Strange (Trent McDuffie, Kaiir Elam, Devin Lloyd, Quay Walker, Dax Hill, etc.) become stars, then Bill Belichick and Co. can expect a new round of second-guessing.
But amid the scrutiny the Patriots have faced since calling Strange’s name last Thursday, it’s been widely acknowledged that the former FCS standout is both a very talented O-line prospect and an excellent fit for New England, which entered draft weekend with a gaping hole at Strange’s preferred position.
A closer examination of Strange’s college film reinforced that idea. The 24-year-old is highly experienced, extremely athletic and plays with a visible nastiness that clearly endeared him to the Patriots’ brain trust.
“This is a really big, strong, tough, athletic guy,” director of player personnel Matt Groh said during the draft. “If you value toughness, which we do, you value guys like Cole Strange.”
Strange’s toughness — Groh used that word or a variation of it a total of 16 times across his two draft-weekend news conference — was evident in both his durability and his tenacious blocking style. He played in 49 of a possible 50 games over his five collegiate seasons and started 44, with 42 of those coming at left guard. And in those games, he played with a mean streak that The Athletic’s Dane Brugler described as being “naturally aggressive in everything he does on the football field.”
Strange is more visible than your typical interior O-lineman on film because he routinely was spotted blocking opponents to or through the whistle, maintaining blocks noticeably longer than his teammates. It also wasn’t uncommon to see him drive a defensive lineman 5 yards downfield, as he did on this snap against Kentucky last season:
The Kentucky game was an important audition for Strange, who played his entire collegiate career at Division I’s lower level. It’s difficult to properly gauge a prospect’s NFL bona fides when he’s consistently competing against weaker opponents, but Strange more than held his own against this particular SEC team.
The 6-foot-5, 307-pounder diverted D-tackles to clear holes in the run game — including two dominant reps against 342-pound nose Marquan McCall — and was sound in 1-on-1 pass protection, successfully engaging second-round draft pick Josh Paschal in space on one passing play.
Though Strange, who played defensive end in high school, is considered a more developed run blocker than pass blocker at this stage of his career, he surrendered just one total pressure against the Wildcats, and that came on what appeared to be a miscommunication. Strange let his man through after a chip, setting up for a screen pass, but Chattanooga’s quarterback, under pressure from two pass rushers, heaved the ball downfield into double coverage, resulting in a pick-six.
An impressive run-blocking performance and near-clean sheet in pass pro, against a team from college football’s best conference that finished the season ranked 18th in the nation? That’ll get you noticed as a small-school prospect.
Strange also was able to test his mettle against some of the nation’s top defenders at the 2022 Senior Bowl. And though that week did produce the widely circulated video of him being overpowered by former UConn defensive tackle Travis Jones, that one play was not indicative of Strange’s overall showing.
A review of the Senior Bowl practice footage posted online showed Strange going 8-5 in his 1-on-1 reps, including 2-2 against Jones and 1-1 against Oklahoma’s Perrion Winfrey, who went on to be voted Senior Bowl MVP.
Most of Strange’s Senior Bowl reps were at center, a position he seldom played in college. (He made one start there and one at left tackle.)
“He played well against good competition at Chattanooga, both in their conference and when they played up, and I thought he played well against competition at the Senior Bowl,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said shortly after the Strange selection. “He’s a smart player that’s played multiple positions. We’ll see how it goes, but I think he can handle (and) has an opportunity to be competitive at a couple different things.”
It’s possible Strange eventually could replace David Andrews as the Patriots’ starting center, but he should begin his career as their top-choice left guard, stepping in for the departed Ted Karras while third-year pro Mike Onwenu succeeds Shaq Mason at right guard.
As for what he’ll look to improve as that career commences, time in an NFL strength and conditioning program should benefit Strange, who could stand to add some bulk and power to his lean, wrestler-esque frame. But he has the quickness, technique and, yes, toughness to be an immediate contributor.
A contributor worthy of a first-round draft pick? That can and will be debated. But based purely on talent and makeup, Strange looks like a player who should quickly help New England’s offense.