The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘A Poor Man’s Mac Jones’? (And Other Thoughts on the Patriots’ Draft Picks)

Posted on | May 7, 2022 | No Comments

Following up on last week’s post (“Belichick’s Strange Choice Confounds Critics Who Don’t Understand 4D Chess”) about the New England Patriots in the NFL Draft, there was a widespread consensus among football commentators that the Patriots had a lousy 2022 draft class overall. Among the choices by Belichick that had pundits scratching their heads this year was choosing Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe in the fourth round. Why, after taking Mac Jones in the first round last year — and after a rookie season that made clear Jones is the future of the franchise — would Belichick draft another QB this year?

The first take I heard on Zappe was from Evan Lazar who called him “a poor man’s Mac Jones.” At Western Kentucky, Zappe broke every passing record — just incredible numbers — and if he’d have done that at a first-tier football school, he would have been drafted much earlier than the fourth round. A classic dropback QB, like Jones, Zappe is also super-smart, scoring the highest among this year’s quarterback prospects on the Wonderlic IQ test. Given the complexity of New England’s offensive scheme, Zappe’s brainpower will be advantageous if he is to be ready to play as a rookie. The Patriots already have two backup QBs on their roster, veteran Bryan Hoyer and 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham. Hoyer, 36, is for all intents and purposes now an assistant coach, acting as mentor to Jones, and Stidham hasn’t lived up to expectations, so the likely scenarios is that Zappe will displace Stidham on the Patriots’ roster.

And then what? There is the possibility, of course, that Zappe could prove to be a quarterback worthy of a starting role, in which case he could provide the Patriots with trade capital. Your team’s starter isn’t getting the job done? Let’s make a deal for, say, that Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker on your roster. Even if the Patriots are certain that Mac Jones is the quarterback of their future, Zappe could add value besides being able to step in if, God forbid, Jones should get hurt. So while I have no problem with the choice of Zappe in the fourth round, I’ve got to admit some of their other choices strike me as questionable.

Two running backs? You’ve already got a tremendous one-two punch with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, who combined for over 1,500 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns last season, so why add two running backs? It does not matter, from my perspective, how good these rookies are. Pierre Strong has blazing speed (4.37 in the 40-yard dash) and Kevin Harris was a real workhorse at South Carolina, so it’s nothing against them as individual players, it’s just that I didn’t see this position as a priority for the Patriots. The real need in New England — after they got Strange to fill their opening at offensive guard — was on defense, particularly at cornerback and linebacker.

The Patriots got two quality cornerbacks in the third round (85th pick overall) and fourth round (121st pick). But was there not a single linebacker on the board they liked with the 127th pick (4th round) or 183rd pick (6th round) they used to get Strong and Harris? Let’s grant that they added veteran linebacker Mack Wilson from the Cleveland Browns in an off-season trade, and that New England also has younger players (e.g., Cameron McGrone and Anfernee Jennings) who could step up this year. Still, it looks like the Patriots are about to lose both Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower from their linebacker corps in free agency, and many analysts expected them to draft a linebacker in the first round this year. Not to draft any linebackers? It doesn’t make sense.

There was a more general complaint — both among fans and among league analysts — that New England “reached” with its first two draft picks, as Strange wasn’t projected as a first-round pick (some projected him going in the third round) and not many thought wide receiver Tyquan Thornton would go in the second round. However, for a team in need of a deep threat at receiver, the Patriots certainly scored big with Thornton, whose 40-yard dash time was the best of any WR at the NFL combine. And maybe those “reaches” weren’t really reaches at all:

NFL Network’s Mike Giardi suggests Bill Belichick and his staff’s insistence that neither player would’ve lasted much longer on the board might have been well-founded.
“On Cole Strange, I’ve learned, per source, there was a team in the 40s that had their eyes on Strange,” Giardi tweeted. “Would they have traded up had he began Day 2 still on the board? That part is unclear. Strange definitely was getting picked in round 2 regardless.”
Some teams, like the Los Angeles Rams, did homework on Strange as a possible third or fourth-round pick, adding fuel to the fire that the Patriots way over-drafted him.
However, it’s notable that several teams picking in the top 40 — the Vikings, Buccaneers and Seahawks — had Strange in for top-30 prospect visits before the draft.
Interestingly, the Bucs, who took defensive tackle Logan Hall with the 33rd pick, took tackle Luke Goedeke later in the second round. The Vikings, who grabbed safety Lewis Cine just after the Patriots picked Strange and also took cornerback Andrew Booth early in the second round, took offensive guard Ed Ingram later in the second as well.
Take this for what you will: Strange was a more highly graded player on NFL.com than either Goedeke or Ingram. Though we don’t know what the teams’ grades for them are, it’s conceivable the Patriots were right about Strange not lasting long (putting aside the actual value of the pick).
The Thornton pick feels harder to figure out.
Most projections suggested Thornton would still be around on Day 3 of the draft, leading to shock when he was selected ahead of seemingly better receiver prospects on Day 2.
But Giardi’s report casts doubt on that as well.
“And while we’re at it, on the Tyquan Thornton pick, league source believes there was a team lurking on the Baylor WR and perhaps a fear from the Patriots that the Steelers (at 52) were ready to pounce. So they move up 4 spots and get the speed merchant,” he wrote.
One theory: the Steelers, who grabbed Pickens at No. 52 overall, thought another team (including the Patriots) might take the Georgia product instead and had Thornton in mind as a backup option. Whether the Steelers, Colts or Chiefs, who all took receivers shortly after the Patriots got Thornton, would’ve actually taken him over the prospects they got is debatable, though.

If Cole Strange was the best offensive guard in the draft, and the Patriots staff believed other teams might have their eye on him in the second round, taking him in the first round makes sense. Of all the wide receivers in the draft, Thornton was the fastest and New England had the need for that speed. So if there was any chance that Pittsburgh (or some other team) would take Thornton before the Patriots got their third-round pick (85th overall), then drafting Thornton in the second round makes perfect sense. Of course, objectively, I realize that I’m rationalizing here — engaged in a defensive justification of questionable behavior.

Rationalization is a universal trait, not just for football fans. Every prison is full of guys who either claim they were really innocent or else have some story to explain how they would have gotten away with it, had not this, that or the other thing gone wrong. After-the-fact explanations to defend our choices, especially when our choices are criticized or when the consequences are objectively bad, are just how the human mind operates as a default setting. So if you’re a Patriots fan, you tell yourself that Bill Belichick must know what he’s doing, even if all the commentators on ESPN are saying his draft picks were bad this year. In defending the questionable picks, you must have the self-awareness that you’re acting like a “homer,” and that your justifications are not objective, even while you marshal facts and logic to make arguments against critics.

Honestly, it’s like Jen Psaki standing at the lectern in the White House briefing room, saying everything Biden does is just awesome.

Do you see why football is a great hobby for a politics junkie? Hunter S. Thompson always thought so, and I share his belief that being a football fan is kind of a methadone treatment, a substitute for the heroin-like addiction of politics. You need something to focus your mental energies on, some obsession that distracts you from the madness of politics, or else you’ll turn into one of those deranged dingbats who think it’s cool to go protest at a Supreme Court justice’s home.

For most of us, our ability to influence politics is nearly as limited as our ability to persuade Belichick to pick a linebacker in the first round. Our inability to change events — our sense of powerlessness, because the important decisions are being made for us, contrary to our own inclinations or opinions — produces a sense of frustration. This frustration is intensified because we are dreadfully impatient. Inside each of us is a bit of Veruca Salt: “I want it now!” Football season doesn’t start until September, and the election is not until November, and we’re enduring the agony of the off-season — a lot of talk, talk, talk from the pundits on TV, when what we crave is the thrill of victory. Triumph over our foes, complete vindication: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

When my brother Kirby talks about anything — politics, football, the war in Ukraine, whatever — he always annoys me by discussing speculative contingencies: “If X happens, then either Y or Z.” This annoys me, as I say, because there is no way to know if X will happen or not. Will Putin go nuclear in Ukraine? Lots of smart people say it’s a real possibility, even though I can’t imagine such a nightmare scenario. Why even bother discussing it? If it happens, it happens, and all the choices are beyond my control, so what is to be gained by a moot court deliberation of the possible consequences of a madman dictator’s actions?

So let’s talk about football instead, but the same problem arises: Kirby always wants to talk about what Alabama should do — as if Coach Saban were going to heed our advice, which is always, “Run the damn ball!” — but exploring the limitless field of imaginative speculation frustrates me. There’s no point to it, and such discussions intensify my feelings of powerlessness. Ultimately, as fans and spectators, we just have to wait until they kick off and then watch what happens.

National Championship for ’Bama, Mac Jones takes the Patriots to the Super Bowl and Republicans win a landslide in the November midterms. And then we’ll enjoy listening to the lamentations of their women.




 

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