Cole Strange and Magnitude of my Madness
I try not to get too emotionally high or low in regards to the NFL draft. I’ve been sitting on my couch playing armchair Mike Mayock on draft night for too long. Players I’ve loved the idea of have ended up busts and selections I’ve despised have turned into players that I consider buying a jersey of in September. Because of that, I typically try and give myself 20 minutes to feel a strong emotion one way or other and then let it pass. We’ll find out for sure in six months.
Still, as the wee hours of Friday approached and my 20-minute time frame firmly in the rear view, I was awake, angry and considering legal action against Bill Belichick. Not even necessarily because I agreed with the numerous draft experts proclaiming their selection a massive reach in the first round.
I don’t hate the player. It’s April, I haven’t even seen him in a Patriots uniforms yet. What I dislike is the thought process behind the selection and the sequence of events that led us to this culmination of chaos on Thursday night.
The Patriots, originally slated at pick #21, traded with the Chiefs to land at #29 and selected Chattanooga Guard Cole Strange; prompting every draft analyst to stop by the tomato stand and warm up their throwing arms. The six-foot six-inch lineman was commonly projected to be drafted in the mid rounds amid questions of his body type.
The Patriots needed a guard to fill out their offensive line. But that hole only exists because the Patriots themselves created it. In mid-March, New England traded guard Shaq Mason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a 5th-round pick. Mason was a steady presence on the Patriots’ line, starting 103 games in the time since New England drafted him in 2015.
Mason, who will turn 29 this summer, was owed $16 million across the remaining two years on his contract at the time of the trade. As a first round pick, Strange will sign a contract spanning four years and likely paying him close to $12 million across it. If you are comparing yearly depth charts, New England swapped out a perennial starter across their line with an unproven rookie for the benefit of an extra 5th rounder and an average of $4 or $5 million saved in cap space over the next two years.
And even if the Patriots were scared of the end of Mason’s contract, there was still another option already in-house. Ted Karras, who started in 13 games last year, signed with Cincinnati for three-years and an average annual value of $6 million. Reportedly, the Patriots initially offered Karras three-years, $15 million before backing down and offering $12 million total. If the Patriots really wanted to move on from Mason and recoup some assets to trade, they could’ve ponied up a few extra million to keep their lineman that former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a “second center” for their young QB.
With needs at linebacker and wide receiver evident since New Englands’ 47–17 thrashing up in Buffalo, the Pats both created their own need and fulfilled it with someone less proven than their own internal options all for minimal financial benefit.
Cole may very well end up being a starter on the Patriots’ offensive line for the next decade, soundly quelling any doubts that he was worth a first round selection. As bad as the Patriots are at scouting and drafting Wide Receivers, they are about as equally as good at churning out a continuous supply of NFL-ready linemen. The outrage of the Strange selection brought back memories of the night New England selected Logan Mankins with the 32nd pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. That selection was similarly lambasted but Mankins ended his Patriots’ career with six Pro Bowl honors over nine seasons.
If the Patriots think Strange is going to end up a solid pro, he probably will be. But as good as the Patriots are identifying linemen at the top of the draft, they’re somehow better at finding them in the back-half. Dan Connolly, David Andrews, Michael Onwenu and Ryan Wendell are among the names that the Patriots have found in the fourth round or later and transformed into stalwarts in the trenches. This ability to find linemen at random Iowa cornfields and 7/11s should be taken into account when considering the top of the draft.
As the NFL World awaits the start of Round 2, the Patriots have the same exact needs at linebacker, wide receiver and corner that they had in January. The Patriots’ roster is leaky right now. And this offseason, instead of plugging holes, they drilled another one. If you were to go back in time and tell me in March that I could choose between two roads; one that has Mason at RG and a versatile first round pick to bolster your defense with and another that has Cole Strange, an extra 5th rounder and about $5 million saved, I would take the former every time.
Ultimately, the Patriots drafted for fit and need on Thursday night. It’s just a need that they created themselves in-between the end of the season and now. It’s not a WR, LB or Corner that brings them any closer to narrowing the gap between themselves and Buffalo and it’s at one of the few positions I would’ve trusted them to find a way to manage anyway.
And it’s that strange sequence of events that led the Patriots to this conclusion that bothers me more than the Strange selection itself.