What the Patriots’ draft says about their approach at offensive line

The Patriots' picks at offensive line, including first-rounder Cole Strange, might be more pragmatic than people realized at first.

Michael Onwenu Patriots
New England Patriots guard Mike Onwenu. Winslow Townson/AP Images
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While much of the offseason focus was on who Mac Jones would be throwing the ball to in his second NFL season, the Patriots seemed more preoccupied with answering a different question: who will be protecting him?

That issue didn’t have a clear resolution heading into the NFL Draft thanks to the loss of starting guards Shaq Mason (trade) and Ted Karras (free agency). Now, it seems to, with first-round pick Cole Strange expected to slot in opposite Michael Onwenu at the guard positions alongside center David Andrews and veteran tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown.

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


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

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

The 28-year-old Mason has $14 million in base money and close to a $16 million cap hit over the last two years of the extension he signed with the Patriots, according to Over the Cap. Those figures weren’t at all prohibitive in terms of keeping Mason around if they wanted to.

But consider this: Michael Onwenu, who’s currently just 24, graded out 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. That’s almost a quintessential Belichick move: plug the younger, cheaper player in to replace the older veteran as long as you can get the same (or better) production.

Strange, meanwhile, feels like he’ll likely take over for the departed Ted Karras on the left guard spot. Karras, people will note, is a 2016 sixth-round pick who worked his way into being a starter. As such, it seems like a waste of capital to bring in a first-round pick to replace him.


But a different way to think about the situation is this: Karras, regardless of his original draft status, has proven himself a solid interior offensive line starter for the past three seasons. Strange likely stands a better chance of replacing Karras right away than another sixth-round pick would.

Plus, he comes at a much cheaper price tag than Karras, who just signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Bengals, or even another replacement-level veteran in free agency. From there, the Patriots obviously hope Strange has a much higher upside than Karras does, of course.

Then, of course, there’s the question of coaching.

Karras had Dante Scarnecchia, who is quite possibly the greatest offensive line coach ever, bringing him along in his formative NFL years. He also had Tom Brady, whose experience allowed him to cover up issues around him, as his quarterback.

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

There’s an argument to be made for investing more in the guard position than you normally would given those facts. In Strange’s case, New England likely hopes he’s talented enough to play through his growing pains while getting constant help from Andrews and Isaiah Wynn.


But Strange isn’t the only young offensive lineman who matters in this equation. Though sixth-round guard Chasen Hines and seventh-round tackle Andrew Stueber probably won’t see much of the field in 2022, they’ll serve as a potentially important trial group for this offensive line coaching staff.

If Patricia, Belichick and Co. can effectively mine Strange, Hines, Stueber and other young offensive linemen for talent and see them make big jumps between now and next season, perhaps the Patriots will go back to business as usual: relying on their staff to train mid-round picks instead of spending high in the draft on less premium offensive line positions.

For now, though, New England seems to be trying to strike the balance between being good and maintaining as much financial flexibility as possible. Going with Onwenu and Strange at guard would appear to accomplish that goal on paper. But just how well this experiment works won’t be known until the pads come on in July and August.


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