Making sense of Cole Strange and the Patriots' teasing an offensive line shift at OTAs


Naturally, Mac Jones' development as a quarterback and leader of the Patriots' offense, as well as how his receiving corps performs around him, will dominate storylines as the 2022 season approaches.

But the offensive line will prove no less interesting and may perhaps provide a few hints for how New England will evolve in this new post-Josh McDaniels era.

Gone are 2021 starting guards Shaq Mason and Ted Karras. Enter third-year offensive lineman Michael Onwenu and 2022 first-round pick Cole Strange to replace them.

But that's not all that could change about the offensive line this season.

Making sense of Strange.

Putting aside the process behind drafting Strange 29th overall last month when there were players at more valuable positions on the board, much of the trepidation about selecting the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga offensive linemen revolved around the idea of him "replacing" Shaq Mason, whom the Patriots traded to Tampa Bay this off-season.

Why create a hole at a non-premium position -- giving away one of your most reliable players, to make it worse -- only to then spend prime draft capital to fill the void?

Part of that answer lies in an important technicality: Onwenu, not Strange, is replacing Mason.

The 2020 sixth-round pick actually edged out Mason in terms of overall Pro Football Focus grade and posted slightly better marks as a run-blocker last year, though Mason was a top-10 guard according to ESPN's run-block win rate stats and Onwenu wasn't.

In any case, the Patriots clearly believe Onwenu, who slotted in at right guard during Monday's OTAs, can give them similar if not better play at a fraction of the price -- Onwenu's base salary for 2022 is $895,000 compared to Mason's $7.5 million -- while being four years younger.

Strange, meanwhile, has the more modest task of standing in for Ted Karras, a former sixth-round pick who has become a solid NFL starter and got a three-year, $18 million deal from the Bengals this off-season. In short, this is about balancing financial flexibility -- the Patriots save approximately $11 million in projected cap space going this route -- and giving the offensive line its best chance to at least function at last year's level.

Watch out for a scheme shift.

If that's going to happen, though, the Patriots might need to re-imagine how they do business up front.

Traditionally, New England's ground game has revolved around "gap" blocking schemes, which include powers and counters. Though these types of runs do involve lineman pulling and getting out into space on occasion, the main focus is on blocking down and walling defenders off from plays.

According to PFF, Damien Harris carried the ball on more gap-style runs (149) than any back in the league last year with Rhamondre Stevenson also cracking the top ten (105; eighth in NFL). By contrast, the two only had 68 combined carries on zone runs. For perspective, Cincinnati's Joe Mixon led the league in zone carries with 224.

But Monday's OTA practice suggested a potential shift in that philosophy with a heavy dose of offensive linemen getting on the move and some tastes of Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay-style bootleg play-action off of that.

Such a scheme would accentuate Strange's outstanding movement skills and perhaps mitigate some of the concerns about his raw power against hefty inside players as a rookie. It also gives Trent Brown and Michael Onwenu, two massive men who move well for their size, chances to punish people out on the perimeter.

It's worth noting offensive line coach/possible run-game coordinator Matt Patricia hired Darrell Bevell, who used monster amounts of outside zone and bootlegs with Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson during their days in Seattle together, as Detroit's offensive coordinator during Patricia's last two seasons as the Lions' head coach. Bevell's influence feels apparent in the run plays the media observed Monday.

With Josh McDaniels gone, perhaps the Patriots' next adaptation on offense will be adopting a scheme that has taken a few different quarterbacks with a similar skill set to Jones (Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jared Goff) to deep playoff runs. Patricia's familiarity with those concepts helps, and the Patriots have the backs to make it work. Now, we have to find out if they have the right coaches to scheme and teach it up.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Eric Canha