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By the time the New England Patriots made their final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, most experts had deemed their 10-man class a disaster. 

Boy, were they wrong. 

Six games into the season, it’s abundantly clear Bill Belichick landed some rock-solid players who should stick around for years to come. Considering how poorly the Patriots performed in the draft over the last half-decade or so, the early returns from the 2022 class certainly rank as a major surprise. 

With several rookies off to strong starts, there’s no doubt the future looks brighter than it did prior to Week 1. And depending on how the rest of the season goes, Belichick may have to cut ties with some household names to hand the reins to younger (and cheaper) options.

The Patriots are quickly looking like early winners of the 2022 NFL Draft

Let’s just say nobody, myself included, thought highly of the 10-player draft class the Patriots put together in April. Belichick’s bold decision to use the 29th overall selection on Tennessee Chattanooga guard Cole Strange raised eyebrows around New England, especially since the team needed help at linebacker, defensive line, and cornerback.

Then, he surprisingly traded up to take Tyquan Thornton 50th overall, another gamble given the speedy receiver’s thin frame and the presence of more accomplished prospects still left on the board. 

Clearly, though, whatever Belichick and first-year director of player personnel Matt Groh saw in both players was spot-on. Strange certainly hasn’t been dominant, but he’s played 98% of the team’s offensive snaps at left guard. Given the substantial leap in competition, it’s worth noting the 24-year-old ranks 39th out of 75 guards in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. 

Meanwhile, Thornton, who led all receivers by running a 4.28 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, showcased his upside in Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns by scoring both through the air and on the ground. If the explosive wideout continues to earn the coaching staff’s trust, he could see a significant uptick in snaps during the second half of the season. 

Of course, New England also got terrific contributions from the talented rookie cornerback tandem of Marcus Jones and Jack Jones. The former gained 35 yards on three punt returns, averaged 19.5 yards on two kick returns, and recorded one pass breakup. 

Meanwhile, the other half of the Jones duo strengthened his case for winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award by providing lockdown coverage all afternoon. The fourth-rounder out of Arizona State has posted an elite PFF grade of 91.0 and looks capable of manning at least the No. 2 CB position moving forward. 

Oh, we got this far without even mentioning the most interesting rookie: Bailey Zappe

Called upon to fill in for an injured Brian Hoyer, the former Western Kentucky standout has suddenly made the idea of starting over Mac Jones a realistic one. At the very least, the Patriots appear to have two young, starting-caliber quarterbacks on their roster, which gives Belichick plenty of flexibility moving forward.

Better days may be ahead in New England thanks to the youth movement

Bailey Zappe during the Patriots-Browns matchup in October 2022
New England Patriots rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe | Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

When the Buffalo Bills dismantled the Patriots in last year’s playoffs, it was difficult to get excited about the future in Foxborough. Belichick’s team clearly lacked speed at key positions, and the combination of a dearth of young talent and an overreliance on over-the-hill veterans like Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins ultimately resulted in a roster that didn’t have a chance at competing for the Lombardi Trophy. 

While the 2022 Patriots still aren’t on the same level as the Bills or the Kansas City Chiefs, it’s fair to say the arrow is pointing up for Robert Kraft’s franchise. 

And as much blame as Belichick deserves for botching the draft process from 2015-19, he deserves credit for turning things around. After missing badly on early-rounders like Cyrus Jones, Sony Michel, Isaiah Wynn, Duke Dawson, N’Keal Harry, and Joejuan Williams, the Patriots have found foundational pieces via the draft in each of the last three years. 

Although the 2020 class included the disappointing third-round tight end tandem of Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, Belichick secured a star in second-round safety Kyle Dugger and another future Pro Bowler in sixth-round guard Michael Onwenu. Plus, linebacker Anfernee Jennings has grown into a key rotational player after arriving as the 87th overall pick. 

The course of the franchise truly changed in 2021 when Belichick landed three excellent prospects in Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, and Rhamondre Stevenson. In fact, in terms of skill and upside, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Stevenson becomes the most successful despite being selected much later than his two talented teammates. 

Have other teams fared better in the draft? 

No doubt. 

But after so many misfires, Belichick had to get it right, and he appears to have done so by drafting perhaps 10 starters since 2020. Another well-executed offseason could finally put the Patriots back into the mix for contending for a Super Bowl title.

New England’s better-than-expected rookie class could force Bill Belichick to make some tough roster decisions


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Another benefit to drafting well? It gives you roster flexibility. 

That’s what makes the rest of the season so interesting for the Patriots. After all, Belichick loves extracting every ounce of value from a player, so if the team’s rookies continue to trend upward, will he move on from more expensive veterans this spring? 

Already projected to have the second-most cap space in the NFL in 2023, New England could open up some more room by going younger at a few positions. 

Obviously, the Mac Jones-Bailey Zappe story will be fascinating to watch as the season unfolds. At this point, it seems highly unlikely the Patriots would even consider trading their top pick from two years ago, but you can never say never when it comes to Belichick. 

However, Thornton’s upside could lead to New England moving on from at least one veteran receiver. Will the team trade Nelson Agholor before the deadline? Will Kendrick Bourne stick around for the rest of the season? Both wideouts face uncertain futures, especially with Thornton quickly proving he can make an impact. 

Moving to the other side of the ball, will Marcus Jones and Jack Jones cement themselves as long-term building blocks? If so, that could spell the end of Jalen Mills’ time with the team. New England can get out of his contract with just a $1.25 million dead cap hit–a small price to pay for creating more space and paving the way for younger players to get on the field. 

So, if the Patriots’ 2022 draft class maintains its current trajectory, expect a few familiar names to be missing from the 2023 roster as a result.

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