The New England Patriots entered the 2022 NFL Draft trying to address two specific areas. As director of player personnel Matt Groh pointed out following Day 3 on Saturday, they wanted to make their team a faster and tougher one.
The players that were picked fit that profile, but the positions targeted add another angle to this story as well. It’s not hard to see what that angle is: this draft was all about Mac Jones.
Entering his second year in the league after getting drafted 15th overall last April, Jones is at the center of the Patriots’ roster construction strategy. Brett Kollmann, who is one of the smartest football analysts out there and who you should follow on all of your favorite social media platforms, said as much during the second round on Friday night.
“I do also want to emphasize the Patriots’ draft strategy here of: ‘We have a young quarterback. Protection. Weapons. Do not let him fail.’ Because Year 2 ... is the big year for quarterbacks.”
Jones already had a very good rookie season. Earning the Patriots’ starting gig over the summer by beating out incumbent Cam Newton, he led New England to a 10-7 record while being by far the most effective first-year passer in the league. If not for some late-season ups and downs, he probably would have been named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The arrow is pointing in the right direction for Jones, but the Patriots do not want to take any chances. Instead, they are trying to build the team around him as best as they can.
The first step to do that in the draft was selecting Chattanooga interior offensive lineman Cole Strange with the 29th overall selection. Strange was a — no, we’re not going for the cheap pun here — curious pick based on his pre-draft rankings and small-school background, but adding him in the first round made plenty of sense from the Patriots’ perspective.
He was the best player at his position available. He fits what the team is looking for up front. He is an athletic freak. And he fills a major need.
The expectation is that Strange will slide into the left guard spot, and together with center David Andrews and right guard Michael Onwenu form the starting three on the interior. Andrews will turn 30 over the summer, but Strange and Onwenu will both only be 24 when the season is kicked off in early September; they appear to be long-term building blocks around which the offensive line and therefore Jones’ protection will be formed.
Strange was not the only O-lineman added to the mix, however. The Patriots also invested a pair of late-round pick in LSU’s Chasen Hines and Michigan’s Andrew Stueber. Neither is a lock to make the roster, but given New England’s ability to find diamonds in the rough they cannot be counted out either.
Again: Protection. Weapons.
The first part was addressed early and late, the second in between.
Tyquan Thornton was the first of those weapons added to the Patriots’ arsenal. A viable deep threat who would have put up significantly better numbers if not for some underwhelming quarterback play at Baylor, Thornton adds an element New England’s offense had missed last year: speed.
As evidenced by his Scouting Combine-best 4.28-second 40-yard dash, Thornton has legitimate deep speed and is able to take the top off of NFL defenses. While it remains to be seen just how much action he will see as a rookie, teams need to respect his ability to get behind the secondary — especially playing with a good deep-ball thrower like Mac Jones — whenever he is on the field.
Will Jones be able to build a connection with Thornton like the one he had with DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle at Alabama, two players with similar skillsets? Only time will tell, but one thing cannot be denied: the 21-year-old is a very good football player who addresses arguably the biggest deficiency New England had on offense last season.
Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris, meanwhile, were added to one of the deepest position groups on the entire roster. While Harris is no lock to make the running back group as a sixth-round selection, Strong Jr. is guaranteed to be on the roster based on his fourth-round status.
Like Thornton, Strong also adds an element of speed to New England’s offense. He gives the Patriots and their young quarterback a change-of-pace option and potential long-term receiving back. Tom Brady had Kevin Faulk to work with when he was starting his career, and New England will hope for the Jones-Strong connection to become similarly important to the offense over the next few seasons.
Heading into the draft, the Patriots picking two running backs was not expected. Then again, neither was seven of 10 selections coming on the offensive side of the ball.
The belief was that New England might go after a starter-level cornerback early in the draft, or improve its linebacker depth chart. Instead, the Patriots went after two offensive players in Rounds 1 and 2 before rounding out its draft with depth options on that side of the ball.
All of this sends a clear message: it’s all about Mac Jones.