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Making a case for the Patriots’ selections in the 2022 NFL Draft

Related: The Patriots had the worst draft in the NFL. At least that’s how it is portrayed.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Baylor at Kansas State Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots are getting killed for their performance in the 2022 NFL Draft by almost everyone, including me. They made multiple picks that were against the media consensus, and were seen as curious around the league.

There is just no way it can be all negative, however, because the Patriots know what they’re doing, and clearly spend a ton of hours scouting.

“How hard did we work? Real hard. Really, really hard,” said director of player personnel Matt Groh on Saturday. “It’s not just the last month or so. It’s a continual process.”

So, surely, it can’t be all bad. Because of this, I’m taking a look at each of the players drafted by the team, and at a best-case scenario for every one of the selections. I’ll be making a case as to why the pick was correct one given the circumstances and what we know.

Again, I gave them a C- as a final grade, so I didn’t love every pick. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to take a look at the positives for each of them.

Day 1: Round 1

1-29 OL Cole Strange, Chattanooga: This pick is getting crushed by fans and talking heads alike for two main reasons: positional value — guard is being a far less valuable position than others — and because Strange wasn’t high on the consensus board. Let’s start by taking a look at the first reason, positional value.

Not only was Strange the third guard taken in the first round, but, just last year, the New York Jets actually traded up for a guard in what was a loaded draft. The thought that guard is not a position that teams value or pay money for is ridiculous. Joe Thuney proved that last offseason, when he signed a five-year $80 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Yes, the Patriots have a track record of getting good play from interior offensive linemen selected late in the draft, but the last guard they took this high was Logan Mankins and that one worked out pretty well. As to the fact that he wasn’t so high on the consensus board, Kyle Shanahan addressed that matter on Friday night.

“Everyone understands everyone ranks guys and there’s a perception of when everyone’s going to go, but the reality of when someone’s going to go is when someone picks them,” Shanahan said. “You don’t know that when it happens. You see it all over when people freak out, but a lot of these guys are really good players.

“We saw that with New England in the first round. That [didn’t] surprise me at all, or us. It surprised you based on the perception because everyone in the world was saying there was no way, but everyone who watched that tape was like, ‘Well, he looks like a first-rounder, who’s going to pull the trigger?’”

That is very well summed up by Shanahan. Simply put, if Strange had played for a power-five school and performed the way he did at the Senior Bowl all week, and then had the testing that he did, he might have been the first interior offensive lineman taken in the draft. Oftentimes, players from smaller schools don’t go as high as they could because they do not get the recognition players from bigger schools get.

If Strange walks in and starts at left guard this year, and develops into a very good player for the Patriots, this will have been a solid pick at 29. People are calling Bill Belichick “naive” because he took a “safe” pick in the first round, knowing that he would be able to plug in Strange and play right away; but isn’t that what you want out of your first-rounder every year?

Day 2: Rounds 2-3

2-50 WR Tyquan Thornton, Baylor: Trading up to grab Tyquan Thornton on Day 2 is another pick that the Patriots are getting killed for. I’ll be perfectly honest, I didn’t even watch any film on him before he was drafted. I assumed that a guy who ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine but still couldn’t climb out of the fifth or sixth round on consensus boards must be fundamentally flawed.

That assumption was not correct. Is Thornton a perfect prospect? Absolutely not, but his release off the line of scrimmage is extremely good. He routinely creates separation immediately after the snap, and has no problem with shaking press coverage at the line. Now, his stem (where he makes his break) is not always clean, but Thornton puts so much pressure on the defender that this often doesn’t matter. He was also able to make some tough catches in traffic, and is a hands catcher who doesn’t let the ball come into his body to secure the throw.

Watching his film, you would think he would have been much higher on people’s boards. Why wasn’t he? I believe that it was partly because his quarterback just wasn’t very accurate. I know how that sounds, but his numbers would have been a lot better last year if his QB could have gotten him the ball on some of his deep routes where he created a ton of room between himself and the defender.

He also had a very low yards-after-the-catch average, but, as our colleague Mark Schofield will tell you: this is a stat that says something about thee quarterback just like it does about the pass catcher. The goal is to the ball to your guy in a position where he can run after the catch; that happened far too little with Thornton at Baylor. For an offense that was lacking in speed and dynamic playmakers, Thornton could be a welcome addition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he made an impact right away.

To get a concrete idea about what Thornton can add to the Patriots’ passing game, the following clip shows two great releases. The second one should have been a wide open touchdown, but Thornton’s QB somehow couldn’t get him the ball:

3-85 CB Marcus Jones, Houston: As evidenced by the A+ grade I gave it, I loved the Marcus Jones pick in the third round. This one is going to be easy for me.

Jones brings speed and explosiveness to the New England secondary, and, that is something everyone was clamoring for after the Patriots were getting torched by the Buffalo Bills in back-to-back meetings last year. Jones is small but stout. He brings a toughness to him that you don’t often see with such a small guy, and he isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty and make plays at the line of scrimmage.

Jones also brings a level of athleticism and speed to the return game that the Patriots simply have not had for quite a while. Of course, Julian Edelman was an amazing punt returner, but Jones also has the ability to return kicks as well.

Oh, and Jones also played receiver at Houston and could potentially do that for the Patriots at times as well. Edelman played slot corner, maybe Jones can play slot receiver. Jones could come in and make an impact on all three phases of the games, and instantly make New England a faster and more athletic team in at least two phases.

The following clip is part of my pre-draft thread on Jones, but it really shows the speed and athleticism he possesses. Watch him find the receiver coming across the field, and sprint into the end zone to pick the pass off. Then, once he has the ball, he accelerates past everyone for what would have been a score if not for a holding penalty against Houston.

Day 3: Round 4

4-121 CB Jack Jones, Arizona State: Jones had some off-field issues in his past, and that, in large part, is why he was so far down most people’s boards. He was kicked off the USC team for his grades in 2018, and also arrested that same year. Those things appear to be behind him, however, as he was one of the leaders on Arizona State for the last few seasons.

Another pretty impressive athlete, Jones is solid in man and zone coverage, and has a knack for breaking on balls to make a play. He’s a guy that can help on the outside or the inside. His measurables don’t blow you away, but he’s a smart corner who wins with angles and anticipation. The name that I keep coming back to is Logan Ryan. If Jones can do what Ryan did, this will be a home run pick.

The Patriots met with him a bunch of times in the pre-draft process, and I have to assume it’s because they really liked what they saw on tape but wanted to make sure that any of his off-field issues were behind him. Apparently, they came away satisfied, so I am satisfied as well.

Here is a good look at why the Patriots might have been high on Jones. He has a nose for the football, and he isn’t afraid to come up and play the run as well:

4-127: RB Pierre Strong Jr., South Dakota State: Strong ran the fastest 40-yard dash out of all the running backs in this year’s draft, and is one of the more explosive runners entering the league this year. He finished his career in Brookings with a yards-per-carry average of 7.2, and had a ton of explosive plays. Last year, he had 47 runs of over 10 yards, 30 runs of over 15 yards, and 10 of his 50 career rushing touchdowns were from 50-plus yards out.

Simply put, the kid is a home run waiting to happen, and he isn’t just all speed either, He’s elusive, and his other testing metrics were fantastic. He posted a 38-inch vertical, and a 124-inch broad jump. The explosion coming from him is legit, and he is the type of back that the Patriots have never really had in their backfield.

Strong is going to be a whole lot of fun to watch, and we might be able to watch him sooner than most rookie backs. His pass protection is already very advanced, after all, something the Patriots require from their backs if they are going to play.

Some of his explosion is on display in the clip below:

4-137: QB Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky: I was highly critical of the Zappe selection initially — giving it an F — but the Patriots are no strangers to taking quarterbacks in the draft. Two months after Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl, they picked Rohan Davey in the fourth round. They do this all the time, and have no problem spending draft capital on developmental backup quarterbacks.

Oftentimes, they have gotten capital back for them as well. When Brady went down in 2008, former seventh-rounder Matt Cassel stepped in and was then traded for a second-round pick. Second-round pick Jimmy Garappolo, of course, was traded for a second as well, while Jacoby Brissett was sent to Indianapolis for Phillip Dorsett. Heck, even Ryan Mallett was traded for a seventh-round pick.

Quarterbacks retain their value more than any other position in football. Having a solid backup is good not only for your team — in case your starter goes down — but also for your assets should another team have a need at the position.

Zappe may not have the best arm in the class, or be the highest rated, but the kid can sling it. He broke all sorts of records this year at Western Kentucky, throwing for 62 passing touchdowns, which is just silly. He excels in short- to medium-area throws, which is exactly what the Patriots ask out of their quarterbacks. This alone puts him in a position to succeed if he is called upon.

Having a guy that has put up the numbers that he has, at the most important position in sports, in a system that is perfect for him, is too good to pass up, even if the hope is that he never starts a game in New England. If Zappe can impress in the next few years, he could become a valuable chip for the Patriots to trade, or, at worst, could be a competent backup behind Mac Jones for years to come.

Did I mention Zappe had one of the best seasons in college football history last season?

Day 3: Rounds 5-7

Any pick made after the fifth round is basically a dart throw, so I’m not going to waste your time by defending the selections of two offensive linemen and a running back in the sixth and seventh rounds. I do want to talk about one more player specifically, though.

Sam Roberts, who the Patriots took at pick 200 in the 6th round, came from tiny Northwest Missouri State, and won the Cliff Harris Award as the best non-FBS defensive player in college football last season. It’s the same award that Kyle Dugger won in 2019 when the Patriots drafted him in the second round. The big difference, of course, is that Roberts wasn’t invited to the Senior Bowl or Scouting Combine, so no one had really heard of him. He has some interesting size and traits that suggest he could one day turn into a contributor on the defensive line, though.

Ultimately, time will tell what will happen with Roberts and the other nine players drafted by the Patriots. But no matter what any analyst or writer tells you, their draft in itself wasn’t terrible, and I do think that there is a good chance we see significant contributions from multiple picks in the 2022 season.

The draft analysts may not have loved the Patriots’ draft class, but remember that a good many of them applauded the Patriots for their haul in 2019. They took N’Keal Harry in the first round and Joejuan Williams in the second, so maybe they don’t know everything after all.