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Cole Strange, Patriots First-Round Draft Pick

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Film room: What first-round draft pick Cole Strange brings to the Patriots offense

New England’s first-round pick raised some eyebrows. It shouldn’t have.

Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots addressing their guard position in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft was not that big of a surprise. After losing Ted Karras in free agency and trading Shaq Mason to Tampa Bay shortly thereafter, the team had a massive hole to fill and addressing it early would help keep the offensive line protecting young starting quarterback Mac Jones at a high quality.

The player that was ultimately picked did raise quite a few eyebrows, though. After moving down from the 21st overall selection in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots went with Chattanooga’s Cole Strange at No. 29.

Strange is expected to immediately fill the Patriots’ vacant left guard spot — the other one is projected to go to third-year man Michael Onwenu — but he was still labeled a reach immediately after his selection was announced. ESPN did not even show any highlights after his name was called. The main issue, however, was that the big boards published leading up to the draft had him rated significantly lower than 29th.

In fact, Strange was widely considered a third-round pick heading into the draft. While it appears the media consensus did not properly reflect how the league felt about him, the selection was still viewed critical by fans and analysts alike, and a big reason why New England’s draft was graded so poorly.

Naturally, there is a lot of talk surrounding the pick. Strange, meanwhile, is doing his talking on the field. Quite emphatically, we might add. His college tape, after all, shows a player flat-out kicking butt and doing what you would want him to do: dominate as both a pass protector and as a run blocker.

Let’s take a look at how Strange performed, and what he will bring to the Patriots offense this season and beyond.

Pass blocking

Strange is one of the most athletic guards to enter the league in recent memory, achieving the seventh best Relative Athletic Score of the last 35 years through his pre-draft testing. The 6-foot-5, 307-pounder made good use of his superior traits at Chattanooga to develop into a top-tier pass protector.

In fact, Pro Football Focus charted him with just 12 combined quarterback disruptions given up in the last three years. Despite playing two of his 28 games over that stretch out of position — he started one at center (2019) and one at left guard (2020) — Strange’s numbers are impressive and indicative of a player who knows how to hold his own when asked to pass-block.

Obviously, he didn’t face the savviest rushers in the FCS but Strange still dominated both as a combo-blocker and when asked to go one-on-one against defensive linemen.

On this rep, Strange (#69) is forced to go wide upon initially engaging with the opposing 3-technique defensive lineman (#94). Despite being put in a challenging position with the defender scraping around the edge, he is able to keep his balance and mirror the pass rush. Strange’s outstanding anchor and active feet allow him to stay in control of the situation.

He did the same on the following play:

Here, Strange stays patient and does not overcommit to either side, which in turn closes the door when the defender tries to attack through his right-side shoulder. He just stays low, engages and slides over to stand his ground.

In general, Strange played with low pads, quick feet, a strong punch, well-placed hands, and the flexibility to anchor versus power despite being relatively light for guard. His ability to adjust and re-place his hands when necessary made him a tough guy to go against, and is one of the main reasons why he gave up only one sack over the last three years.

Strange also brings the necessary fight and physical edge to the interior line.

On this play, he initially starts out by helping block the 3-technique end (#94) through his mere presence. Knowing that Chattanooga is keeping the running back in to pass-block, however, he is freed up to slide over and help the center against the 1-tech (#93); the defender never stands a chance and gets buried by Strange even with the play basically over from the linemen’s perspective.

He needs to be careful playing through the whistle in the NFL not to risk any penalties, but his play style is both a positive for his teammates and a challenge for those lining up on the other side of him: Strange regularly looks for help, relishes making guys pay for high pads, and finishes a lot of plays on top of defensive linemen.

This play is a good example of Strange’s combination of team-oriented blocking and nastiness. He has no initial blocking assignment before moving over to help the center (#54). Once his job there is done, he is on to assist his left tackle (#75); the play ends with the defender on the ground.

Strange is a finisher, and he plays the kind of football that gets under guys’ skins.

Of course, he is more than just a bully looking to run people over. While very good at that — and his tape is full of plays like that — his intelligence and ability to apply his experience are other key components of his game as a pass blocker.

This is apparent on twists and slants. He shows excellent peripheral vision to sniff out defensive linemen coming into his area, as the following play illustrates:

Strange shows some good chemistry with left tackle Harrison Moon (#75) to keep the integrity of the left side of the pocket intact even with the defense running a stunt up front. However, he sees the line game coming, and then uses his rare fluidity in space and strong anchor to slide over and shut it down quickly.

The following play is more of the same:

As can be seen by his arm extension, Strange communicates with Moon to stay on the outside against the defensive stunt. He then simply moves along the momentum of the 7-technique edge defender (#96) and stays engaged throughout the rep. This, in turn, helps clear a path for the quarterback scramble.

Strange was outstanding as a pass blocker for Chattanooga in 2021, but he still has some room for improvement. He was beaten to his outside on occasion and also struggled making and sustaining blocks in the screen game at times.

Despite some inconsistencies in those areas, the Patriots were able to get themselves a very good pass protector who should slide into the lineup right away and be productive. Playing between veterans Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews should only help his transition from Division-I to the NFL.

Run blocking

To sum up Cole Strange’s run blocking in a few simple words: if he wants you moved, you move.

Strange played some outstanding football in the Mocs’ zone-heavy scheme, where he was able to consistently use defenders’ leverage against them and apply his elite agility to make blocks while on the move. The 23-year-old found consistent success thanks to his low pad level, accurate hand placement, strong grip, and relentlessness.

Just like he did in the passing game, he routinely buried defensive linemen to take them out of the play.

On this zone run to his side, he simply plows forward to clear space for running back Tyrell Price (#23). The defender has no chance once engaged, with Strange keeping his feet working through contact and keeping his form intact.

Strange also showed impressive range, balance, and savvy when he needed to get out in front of defensive linemen. He crossed defenders’ faces to beat their alignment on reach blocks, showed the tools to win in different ways, and made adjustments to hang on even on more awkward reps.

While his competition was not up to his level most of the time, he was able to do all those things even when going up against top-tier clubs such as Kentucky. On the following run behind the left side of the line, he showcases all those skills to move 336-pound defensive lineman Justin Rogers (#52) out of the way:

Defensive linemen such as Rogers generally had a hard time getting through Strange once he picked up speed. His feet remain active through contact, and he is able to keep his pads down even as his opposition is trying to get him out of position.

The same is true at the linebacker spot. FCS-level linebackers did not stand a chance against Strange when he was given clear paths to the second level. He moved them out of the way time and again, whether he was coming from the backside or serving as the front-side guard.

On this play, Strange quickly identifies his target: he keys in on the Mike linebacker (#9) aligning over the offensive left-sided A-gap. Shooting out of his stance with the flow of the play, he leaves him no chance: the initial impact moves the defender back and Strange finishes by staying between him and the ball-carrier.

Despite his nasty and physical style of play, however, Strange showcases patience and control when attacking the second level. He does get grabby at times but generally rarely overshoots his targets and usually waits to engage until prime opportunities to do so present themselves.

Strange also looked good when getting off combo blocks to reach linebackers. His athleticism makes for an easy transition to the second level, while he throws dedicated and meaningful blocks before switching assignments; he additionally shows strong awareness on the move and versus blitzers.

His abilities to engage while in motion also were on display on pull blocks. On the rare occasions Strange was asked to pull on gap concepts — which the Patriots specialize in — or to serve as a down blocker, he shined.

He looks comfortable latching onto defenders when coming across the formation and dominates on downhill doubles.

On this play against a talented Kentucky defense, Strange pulls across the formation from his left guard alignment and seals off defensive tackle Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald (#94) to create space for the off-tackle run. Despite engaging with Abadi-Fitzgerald on the move, Strange quickly halts his momentum to drop his anchor and keep his balance. The play gains only minimal yardage, but Strange did what he was supposed to do.

That was very much the story of his entire college career both in run blocking and pass protection. His contributions had a limited impact on Chattanooga’s offensive success, despite him clearly being the best player on the field in the majority of games he played in.

Did this hurt his pre-draft projection? Not on its own. However, add him playing lower-level college football and having only three starts against power-five schools — including just one in the last two years — and you get a difficult projection.

The Patriots obviously did not have an issues with that. What they saw instead was a highly athletic plug-and-play guard with a high ceiling, who dominated the FBS level as both a run blocker and a pass protector.

The film supports this perspective on Cole Strange.

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