FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots‘ rookie class has been widely panned by draft analysts, with some scouts and executives across the NFL also sharing their viewpoint with ESPN that first-round pick Cole Strange and second-rounder Tyquan Thornton went earlier than their teams had anticipated.
“I just don’t think they got value with their first two picks this year,” ESPN senior draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote.
Fellow ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay echoed those thoughts, calling the Strange pick “eyebrow-raising” while noting he was his 77th-rated prospect overall.
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Jordan Reid, another ESPN draft analyst, rated Strange a third-round pick.
While everyone expressed respect for longtime coach Bill Belichick, and acknowledged that he could ultimately have the last laugh, the Patriots’ early draft work — and how it didn’t align with the boards of draft analysts or other teams — became a topic of discussion in some NFL circles.
What does it really mean?
Not much now. After all, there is no shortage of examples of the Patriots being widely praised after a draft, only to later learn the class didn’t produce the expected results (here’s one random example from 2019 — an A for what now looks more like a D draft).
So much happens between when a player is selected and the three-year window that most around the NFL believe is the benchmark for when a draft can be most fairly analyzed.
How the players are coached and brought along in the system is critical. The mentality of how they take that coaching, and adjust to football as their full-time job, is equally important. Injuries are sometimes a factor.
So at this point, instead of a knee-jerk instant analysis of the Patriots’ draft class, perhaps a smarter approach is to de-emphasize the question of how they fared, and instead ask this: What did the Patriots’ draft approach say about how Bill Belichick views his team?
Here is one reporter’s take:
1. Speed deficient on offense: When you select the receiver (Thornton) and running back (Pierre Strong Jr.) who posted the fastest 40-yard dash times at the NFL combine in their respective position groups, it couldn’t be more obvious. More home run threats on offense were needed.
2. Changing of guard: One of the knocks on the selection of Strange was that the Patriots created the need by trading veteran guard Shaq Mason in March. That’s one way to look at it, but a more accurate assessment seems to be that Belichick didn’t view Mason’s performance as worthy of his salary and saw the draft as the best way to not only upgrade, but do so at a fraction of the cost. It didn’t have to be in the first round, but that’s the way it turned out.
3. Eyes on AFC East: The physical makeup and sticky-coverage/sudden playing style of third- and fourth-round cornerbacks Marcus Jones (5-foot-8, 174 pounds) and Jack Jones (5-foot-10, 171) seem like a direct response to what the Patriots face in the division — as dynamic Tyreek Hill joins Jaylen Waddle in Miami, and few Patriots could keep up with Bills pass-catchers Stefon Diggs, Isaiah McKenzie & Co., late last season — especially on deep crossing routes.
4. Still invested in young LBs: What to make of the Patriots passing on linebackers entirely? Belichick is not yet ready to give up on 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings, and as director of player personnel Matt Groh said, 2021 fifth-round pick Cameron McGrone is like an “additional draft pick” after sitting out his rookie season while recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered at Michigan. There’s also 2021 third-round pick Ronnie Perkins and 2020 second-rounder Josh Uche in the conversation.
5. White a wild card: Veteran running back James White said last week that he is still not cleared after having hip surgery last season. When the team drafts two running backs (Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris) despite already having Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and White on the roster, it reinforces that the team is protecting itself when it comes to White’s status.
6. Hedge on Harris’ future: Harris enters the final year of his contract in 2022, and while an extension can never be ruled out, loading up the depth chart behind him with two draft picks could foreshadow how Belichick will view any future contract talks. It marked the first time the Patriots selected two running backs in a draft since 2011 (Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley).
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7. Stidham on notice: Selecting Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe in the fourth round (No. 137) shines a spotlight on Jarrett Stidham‘s development. The 2019 fourth-round pick has not seemed to ascend and now has a real battle to make the team as a backup to Mac Jones.
8. Belief in Groh: Belichick seems to have put a lot of faith in Groh, the first-year director of player personnel and former national scout, considering he veered away from power programs on a few picks. Strange played at Tennessee-Chattanooga, fourth-rounder Strong at South Dakota State and sixth-round pick Sam Roberts at Northwest Missouri State.
9. Inner circle: As shown on Patriots.com, the Patriots have probably the smallest draft room in the NFL, with Belichick, Groh, owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft, director of scouting Eliot Wolf, pro scouting director Steve Cargile, senior football advisor Matt Patricia, college scouting director Camren Williams, director of football/head coach administration Berj Najarian and director of research Richard Miller among the selected few from the organization spotted on Day 1 of the draft. This is the leadership group Belichick has entrusted in a year of transition, with former director of player personnel Dave Ziegler having departed to become Raiders general manager.
10. Return game: After a down year on special teams, one way to bring back the mojo is to select arguably the draft’s most dynamic punt returner in the third round (Marcus Jones). Groh also said the Patriots will consider what second-round burner Thornton might contribute as well (possibly on kickoff returns). Projecting picks onto the roster is a significant part of the draft, and this was a reminder how the Patriots continue to place a significant emphasis on fourth down.