Patriots’ small-school draft picks dominated big-school competition

As the 2022 NFL Draft approaches, he’s been touted as one of the wildest and most unexpected in recent history. That prediction ended up coming true, both league-wide and for the Patriots.

Among the number of New England-curved trends was the usual emphasis on big-school prospects. Of the schools they have historically targeted the most under BelichickOL Michigan’s Andrew Stueber was the only player to add to this list.

During that time, they took players from five non-Power Five schools – OL Cole Strange from Cattanooga, CB Marcus Jones from Houston, RB Pierre Strong from South Dakota State, QB Bailey Zappe from Western Kentucky and DL Sam Roberts of upstate Missouri. That’s the most they’ve taken on a single draft since the conference realigned in the early 2010s. Of those five, four have spent the majority if not all of their college careers at non-FBS schools, which is the most by the team in the Belichick era. (Jones is the exception, having played for Troy and then a Houston program that has been one of the top five schools since the realignment and will join the Big 12 in 2023.)

While it varies from position to position, for the most part players from smaller schools as a whole are no more or less likely to succeed than their larger school counterparts. However, this comes from a much smaller sample size. This is partly due to the fact that small school players can be more difficult to assess and project due to the level of competition they face. By looking at these players, teams may place more emphasis on showcase bowls (eg Senior Bowl, Shrine Bowl) or games against higher level teams.

For the Patriots’ first three junior school prospects, both boxes are checked. Strange and Zappe both participated in the Senior Bowl, while Strong and Roberts were participants in the Shrine Bowl. The team was lucky enough to see the three work against elite competition in January.

What really stands out is the production all three had against elite competition. Strong has had two chances to face Power Five teams in the past three years in a pair of SEC opponents. The Mocs — a Southern Conference or SoCon FCS team — faced Tennessee in 2019 and Kentucky last year. In each of those games, Strange allowed no sacks, only one QB hit, and one pressure. PFF gave him an 80.9 blocking rating for the game against Kentucky, which ended up finishing the season ranked 18th in the nation.

Martin E. Berry