Sunday Patriots Notes: What’s going on with Cole Strange?

Week 11 of the NFL season is upon us, and it will see the New England Patriots welcome the New York Jets to Gillette Stadium for the two teams’ second meeting this season. For both division rivals, the game will be the first one out of the bye, and a big one in a tight AFC East.

Obviously, all our focus is on that game. To keep you up to date with some of the stories that have emerged over the last week that we did not have time to cover elsewhere, however, make sure to check out this week’s Sunday Patriots Notes.

What is going on with first-round draft pick Cole Strange? The Patriots raised quite a few eyebrows when they selected Chattanooga guard Cole Strange in the first round of this year’s draft. Selection no. 29 did immediately earn himself a starting spot and appeared to play some quality football early on in the season, but he has since taken a step back.

Over the final two pre-bye games against the Jets and Indianapolis Colts, Strange was benched twice in favor of a seemingly positionless Isaiah Wynn. Missing center David Andrews did not do him any favors, but what exactly is going on with the rookie?

A look at the film shows a recurring theme: his pressures have largely been the result of defenders beating him at the point of attack, avoiding his punches to get past him.

Strange’s inconsistency delivering punches off the ball has also been noted by offensive line guru Brandon Thorn.

“That’s been an issue for him in college too. It’s definitely caused problems this year,” Brandon told Pats Pulpit. “To me it’s about striking timing and lack of independent hands. He’s punching with both hands at guys often late or early, leaving zero margin for error. You can’t play like that and win consistently.”

Brandon added that, in his book, Strange has had a rough year. However, there is potential for him to become a solid player even though it will take some time.

That is not just true for his technique but also his diagnosing skills.

The Patriots will likely continue riding Strange despite his up-and-down play this season. However, he needs to continue showing some growth and become a more consistent player from both a technical and mental perspective to show the team that its trust in him is not misplaced.

The Patriots are under the most pressure heading into the second half of the season. With the bye week in the rear-view mirror, the Patriots are now gearing up for the stretch run of their season. In order to successfully maneuver through those next eight regular season games, the team will need some significant contributions from all its players.

The following nine in addition to the aforementioned Cole Strange, however, have been identified as those under the most pressure — either due to their role or first-half performance.

QB Mac Jones: The Patriots’ offensive issues this season did not fall entirely on the sophomore quarterback. However, Jones has shown some uncharacteristically sloppy decision making and ball security and has not been able to elevate the offense as one would hope. Maybe some added experience within the new scheme and with his teammate will help him turn his season around and do something he didn’t do in 2021: finish strong.

RB Rhamondre Stevenson: With Ty Montgomery reportedly not coming back from injured reserve, the Patriots will continue to rely on Stevenson quite a bit. It would be great for the offensive operation if he can keep answering the call despite a heavy workload.

WR Kendrick Bourne: Bourne did see an increase in opportunities as the season went on, but he has yet to return to the same levels of play he showed in 2021. The hope is that he can carry this momentum into the second half of the season, and give New England another chain-mover at wide receiver besides a heavily-used Jacoby Meyers.

OT Isaiah Wynn: Wynn has had a forgettable first half of the season, and there are questions about his role moving forward. Nevertheless, he is a top-five player along the offensive line in terms of talent — he just needs to start putting things together and eliminate his mental errors.

LB Matthew Judon: The Patriots defense is one of the best in the NFL this season in large part due to Judon playing on a Defensive Player of the Year-like level. The league-leader in sacks needs to continue his high level of play for the unit to remain successful — something he was unable to do in 2021, when he saw a marked drop-off in production post-bye.

LB Mack Wilson Sr.: New England will face its fair share of mobile quarterbacks over the coming weeks, and the team will need its second-level defenders to be ready for the challenge. Among them is offseason trade acquisition Mack Wilson, who was brought in because of his impressive athleticism and ability to work as a spy against dual-threat QBs.

CB Jonathan Jones: With JC Jackson off to Los Angeles, New England put considerable trust in ex-slot cornerback Jones to serve as a CB1-caliber defensive back. He has done just that over the first half of the season, but with some elite pass-catching talent coming up — Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs, Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins, to name but three — he will be under considerable pressure over the back -half.

CB Myles Bryant: Bryant remains the Patriots’ No. 1 slot cornerback for now, but he has two rookies breathing down his neck. Jack Jones’ emergence might lead to Jonathan Jones seeing more slot snaps again, while Marcus Jones has the speed and shiftiness to take over for the third-year man inside as well. Bryant needs to play some quality football or else he might find himself on the outside looking in.

P Jake Bailey: Bailey will miss at least the next four games on injured reserve, but whenever he returns he needs to show some improvement. The fourth-year man, after all, was in the middle of an inconsistent season before a back injury sidelined him.

Bill Belichick sees progress in practice squad offensive lineman Bill Murray. One of the most interesting but also most under-the-radar storylines of the offseason, was third-year man Bill Murray moving from the defensive to the offensive line. The move was not enough to keep Murray on the roster, but it did allow him to stick around via the practice squad.

He even was elevated to the game-day roster in Week 7 against the Chicago Bears. Along the way, Murray has apparently shown some solid growth.

“It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t able to put a full training camp and even regular season together. It’s kind of been in spurts. But lately it’s been good,” said head coach Bill Belichick on Friday. “His training is good. I mean he looks great physically. And of course, our practices are cut down now, one padded practice a week and that kind of thing.

“So, the opportunity for those players developmental O- and D-lineman, linebackers, tight ends is just limited. In the line of scrimmage blocking and pass protection, you know all those kinds of things. Receivers and DBs can run routes and cover and that but the development of the bigger guys in the interior part of the line is just limited. So, Bill does all he can.”

Murray joined the Patriots as a rookie free agent out of William & Mary and spent his first two years on the practice squad as a depth defensive lineman. He never saw any game action, though, and in order to maximize his chances of sticking around made the position change this year.

According to Belichick, Murray’s work ethic has helped him successfully make that move.

“Nobody works harder than that kid,” he said. “Physically, he looks great and was impressive. His training is very impressive. But like a lot of young guys what they really need are snaps, and so he gets as many as he can. So, he’s making progress.”

Patriots center David Andrews explains the team effort that goes into a successful play-action game. Like the rest of the offense, the Patriots’ play-action game has also run hot and cold this year. At times, the team has successfully moved the football off of run fakes or similar concepts such as run-pass option plays, but those positive plays have been few and far between.

For center David Andrews, it all starts with the run game.

“It’s a team thing,” he said this week. “We have to do a great job of selling the fake — pad level, things like that, the quarterback and running back have to do a great job. It’s really a team effort, something you have to do really well. You have to run the ball well, first of all, to have play action. You just have to do a great job, you have to make it sound and look like a run.

“Running the ball well helps that a lot. When they’re not really fearing the run, obviously play-action’s not as fearful. But when you got guys, linebackers, knowing they have to step up, they have to fill, maybe they’re rolling a safety into the box, whatever it is, that’s when you’re going to open up more of those lanes behind you . It all starts in the run game, in my opinion.”

Andrews went on that the blocking aspect of it is crucial from an offensive line perspective. The sound and look of pads hitting each other in run-blocking, after all, would be different from the more passive and backward-based pass protection.

Mac Jones is the least efficient early-down quarterback in the NFL. The Patriots’ early-down struggles are well-documented, and the following graphic shared by Pro Football Focus’ Kevin Cole illustrates this as well. The focus lies solely on the passing game, with New England starter Mac Jones as the least efficient QB in the NFL from the perspective of expected points added on first and second downs:

The Patriots have repeatedly stated the need to improve on early downs, to keep themselves out of unfavorable must-win third downs. As with most things pro football, it all starts at the quarterback: if Jones and the passing offense cannot move up that chart, no improvements will happen and the unit will continue its struggles.

Several ex-Patriots hear their names called in the XFL Draft. The new edition of the XFL held its draft this week and multiple former New England Patriots were among those selected. The draft worked not as the usual NFL event, but rather in tiers: quarterbacks were selected first, followed by skill position players, defensive backs, and so on.

The most notable name on that list is Antonio Garcia, and offensive lineman for the Vegas Vipers. Garcia originally joined the Patriots as a third-round draft pick in 2017 — one of only four players selected by the team that year — but he never appeared in a single game for the organization after blood clots were discovered in his lungs.

Garcia ended up spending time with the Jets, Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins before moving to the CFL. Now, he will try to continue his career south of the border again in the XFL 2.0.

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