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What the Patriots draft says about their approach to the offensive line


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The Patriots’ picks on the offensive line, including first-rounder Cole Strange, might be more pragmatic than people first thought.

New England Patriots guard Mike Onwenu. Winslow Townson/AP Images

While much of the offseason focused on who Mac Jones would throw the ball in his second season in the NFL, the Patriots seemed more concerned with answering a different question: who would protect him?

This problem had no clear resolution before the NFL Draft thanks to the loss of starting guards Shaq Mason (trade) and Ted Karras (free agency). Now it looks like it is, with first-round pick Cole Strange expected to line up opposite Michael Onwenu at guard alongside center David Andrews and veteran tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown.

Of course, that’s still not how most Patriots fans or league pundits think the team’s first-round pick should have been spent. While Strange might be a good player, taking a first-round guard feels like something you do when the rest of your roster is stacked. Taking a cornerback or edge defender would have seemed like better value at pick No. 21 or 29, where New England ultimately selected Strange.

Why not just draft an end-of-round pick or two and develop one of them to take on a guard spot? Or, perhaps even easier, why not just sign a cheap veteran to do it?

In a simple sense, the answers to these questions boil down to the two things they almost always revolve around in life: time and money.

Mason, 28, has $14 million in base money and near a cap of $16 million hit in the last two years of the extension he signed with the Patriots, according to Over the Cap. Those numbers weren’t prohibitive at all to keep Mason if they wanted to.

But consider this: Michael Onwenu, who is currently just 24, has performed better overall and as a run blocker than Mason did last season, according to Pro Football Focus. It will most likely be Onwenu, not Strange, being Mason’s successor. It’s almost a quintessential Belichick move: plug in the younger, cheaper player to replace the older veteran as long as you can get the same (or better) output.

Strange, meanwhile, feels like he’ll likely take over for the late Ted Karras at left guard. Karras, people will note, is a sixth-round pick in 2016 who managed to become a starter. As such, it seems like a waste of capital to bring in a first-round pick to replace him.

But another way to think about the situation is this: Karras, regardless of his original draft status, has proven to be a strong interior offensive line starter over the past three seasons. Strange probably has a better chance of replacing Karras immediately than another sixth-round pick.

Plus, he’s priced a lot cheaper than Karras, who just signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Bengals, or even another veteran replacement in free agency. From there, the Patriots are obviously hoping that Strange will have a much higher advantage than Karras, of course.

Then, of course, there is the matter of coaching.

Karras had Dante Scarnecchia, who is quite possibly the greatest offensive line coach of all time, bringing him into his formative years in the NFL. He also had Tom Brady, whose experience allowed him to hide the problems around him, as a quarterback.

Right now, the Patriots will likely have Matt Patricia, who served as an assistant offensive line coach in 2005, mentoring young players in the trenches. Plus, Strange and the rest of the offensive line must protect a sophomore quarterback in Mac Jones who is still finding his way in the NFL.

There’s a case to be made for investing more in the ranger station than you normally would given these facts. In Strange’s case, New England is likely hoping he’s talented enough to weather his growing pains while still having constant help from Andrews and Isaiah Wynn.

But Strange isn’t the only young offensive lineman who matters in this equation. Although sixth-round goaltender Chasen Hines and seventh-round tackle Andrew Stueber likely won’t see much on the field in 2022, they will serve as a potentially important testing group for this offensive line coaching staff.

If Patricia, Belichick and Co. can indeed tap Strange, Hines, Stueber and other young offensive linemen for talent and see them make big leaps by next season, maybe the Patriots will be back in business. business as usual: relying on their staff to train mid-round picks instead of spending big in the draft on less premium offensive line positions.

For now, though, New England seems to be trying to balance being good with maintaining as much financial flexibility as possible. Going with Onwenu and Strange in custody would seem to achieve that goal on paper. But we won’t know how well this experiment works until the pads are in place in July and August.



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