Patriots coach Bill Belichick glad UTC's Cole Strange was still available

AP photo by Butch Dill / Former UTC offensive lineman Cole Strange takes part in a Senior Bowl practice on Feb. 2 in Mobile, Ala.
AP photo by Butch Dill / Former UTC offensive lineman Cole Strange takes part in a Senior Bowl practice on Feb. 2 in Mobile, Ala.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The New England Patriots made a move down the board, then another to replenish their offensive line, selecting University of Tennessee at Chattanooga guard Cole Strange with the 29th pick in the NFL draft Thursday night.

New England entered the first round with needs to fill at linebacker and in its secondary, but the franchise chose to first fortify the protection up front around second-year quarterback Mac Jones.

Patience paid off for New England last year when it opted not to trade up during a quarterback-rich draft and still ended up getting its top target in Jones, the former Alabama star. This year the Patriots were part of a flurry of first-round trades, dealing the 21st overall pick to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for the 29th pick, a third-round pick (94th overall) and fourth-round pick (121st overall).

It marked the 18th straight year that New England has made at least one draft-day trade.

"I'm glad Cole was there when we picked," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He wouldn't have lasted much longer."

Strange said the Patriots were getting a player whose style is "aggressive and relentless."

"Aggressive and trying to play nasty," he said. "How the game of football is supposed to be played."

Belichick said they entertained various scenarios with their original No. 21 spot that included discussions with multiple teams.

The ultimate decision to make the deal with the Chiefs landed the Patriots the 6-foot-5, 307-pound Strange, a five-year starter for the Mocs who was a Football Championship Subdivision All-American for several outlets this past season. He met with the Patriots at both UTC's pro day and at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.

Strange, who also took part in the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, believes the week of practice in Mobile was key in him proving he could play at the next level.

"I think the Senior Bowl helped me quite a bit," he said. "The week of exposure playing against guys from FCS schools, SEC schools, Big Ten schools showed scouts I was competitive enough."

He played guard and center in college and could be a candidate to fill some of New England's voids on the line after the team traded right guard Shaq Mason and lost utility offensive lineman Ted Karras in free agency.

"He's long, he's athletic. He's physically tough. He's an aggressive player," Belichick said of the team's evaluation of Cole. "I think he has a good combination of skills, run and pass. All of which will hopefully get better."

In addition to bolstering the O-line, injecting youth and speed into a defense that has been skewing older at linebacker will likely be a focus for New England in the final two days of the draft. That became more evident after the decisions to release Kyle Van Noy and to not re-sign veterans Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower.

The Patriots also are in need of depth in the secondary after letting cornerback J.C. Jackson leave during free agency.

New England has at least one pick in every round to help replenish its roster, including two picks each in the third and fourth rounds, and three picks in the sixth round. The Patriots begin Friday with one pick each in the second and third rounds.

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