Could New England Patriots' top draft picks be a referendum on relative athletic score?

Offensive lineman Cole Strange had excellent testing numbers at 6-foot-5 and 307 pounds. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Relative athletic scores: The Patriots' 2022 draft class spoke volumes about how Bill Belichick & Co. view the team's deficiencies -- specifically with a focus on speed in a game that continues to be played more in space.

Director of player personnel Matt Groh also pointed out how the Patriots have always placed a high value on toughness.

Whether the Patriots identified the right players to inject those traits into their roster will be determined in time, but how they came to the conclusion that guard Cole Strange (first round, 29th), receiver Tyquan Thornton (second round, 50th), and cornerback Marcus Jones (third round, 85th) were ideal targets was notable.

In short, the Patriots' Class of '22 -- criticized in some circles because of the perception the team reached on players -- might turn out to be the litmus test for how much stock teams should place in analytics and testing numbers when valuing players.

Relative athletic score, which grades a player's measurements on a 0-to-10 scale compared to their peer group, is becoming more mainstream in football reporting, and the picks of Strange and Thornton provide a springboard to highlight them.

Strange, in particular, is off the charts.

When his measurements and testing numbers are compared to others at guard since 1987, he ranks seventh out of 1,298 prospects.

"He's almost 6-[foot]-5, 300 pounds and runs sub-5 seconds in the 40 [-yard dash]. Benched 225 [pounds] 31 times. There's not a lot of humans out there that are doing that," Groh said Friday night.

Meanwhile, Thornton's 4.28 time in the 40-yard dash is the fourth fastest by a receiver at the NFL combine since 2006.

Thornton's relative athletic score is also promising, ranking 405th out of 2,785 receivers from 1987 to 2022. The speed is elite.

The trend continued on Saturday in the fourth round when the Patriots selected South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr., whose 4.37 time in the 40-yard dash at the combine was tied for the fastest among running backs. Strong also had a high relative athletic score, with elite speed.

Of course, projecting traits has long been a part of scouting. Relative athletic scores don't play football on Sundays, and Strange, Thornton & Co., wouldn't be Patriots if they hadn't already transferred some of their unique athletic gifts to the field as football players.

But their elite testing numbers, and how the Patriots now project those to the NFL relative to the other 31 teams when assessing value, was an obvious storyline of note.

2. Why not McDuffie? It is often said that a team's draft is best assessed after at least three years have passed, and with the Patriots' 2022 class, a top player to watch will be cornerback Trent McDuffie. Had the Patriots stayed at the 21st pick overall and taken McDuffie instead of trading down to 29, they'd likely be getting a lot of "attaboys" for their work in filling a top need with a player who wasn't expected to be available.

So why didn't they?

One NFL scout pointed to McDuffie's shorter-than-ideal arm length (29 3/4) as a possible reason the Patriots didn't race to turn in their card -- especially since they have traditionally preferred to play press-man coverage on the outside (where some view arm length as critical). Weighing that against the value the Patriots received to trade down (getting a solid haul of third- and fourth-round picks), they took the trade, knowing there was a small handful of players (including Strange) they were comfortable selecting at 29.

3. Thornton's speed: In selecting Thornton, the fastest wide receiver in the 2022 draft, the Patriots might have had this statistic on the mind -- New England receivers ranked 25th in the NFL in separation on deep balls last year. They had only 1.6 yards of separation on throws 20-plus yards downfield, per ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.

At the same time, one point Groh made is that the team views Thornton as more than just a burner running down the field. "This isn't just a linear guy. You see him really be able to get off the line," he said. "And for as fast as he is, to be able to see him get in the red zone and do some things, it's not just speed, it's 6-2, ability to get up and really pluck the ball out of the air."

Longtime NFL tape analyst Greg Cosell, of ESPN's NFL Matchup Show, had highlighted Thornton as a receiver worthy of more attention before the draft.

4. Early returns: The Patriots naturally hope Thornton and Jones develop into front-line options at receiver and cornerback, respectively, but not to be overlooked is their more immediate opportunity of helping the team in the return game. Thornton's blazing speed could be a factor as a kickoff returner (he only returned eight kickoffs in college), and Jones is a top candidate to fill the void left by top punt returner Gunner Olszewski's departure. Over the past two seasons, Jones had 711 punt return yards and 12 punt returns of 12-plus yards -- both the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. In 2021, the Patriots ranked No. 18 in the NFL in kickoff return average (21.8 yards) and No. 6 in punt return average (11.3 yards).

5. Picks in 2023: A Friday night trade in which the Patriots gave up their late third-round pick (94) in exchange for Carolina's late fourth-rounder (137) and a 2023 third-rounder showed how Belichick -- with rock-solid job security -- is often thinking ahead. The 2023 third-rounder essentially replaces what the Patriots previously traded for veteran receiver DeVante Parker. So when accounting for compensatory draft picks, and prior picks acquired from the Rams (Sony Michel) and Panthers (Stephon Gilmore), the Patriots have 2023 picks in the following rounds: 1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 6, 6, 6, 7.

6. Don't forget McGrone: In what was viewed by many as a deep inside linebacker class, the Patriots stayed away from it entirely in the draft. While it's always dangerous to say that's a direct correlation to how the Patriots view the linebackers already on the roster, Groh highlighted second-year player Cameron McGrone (2021 fifth round) as "kind of an additional draft pick" after not playing his rookie 2021 season while recovering from a torn ACL suffered at Michigan. Add in trade acquisition Mack Wilson and the re-signing of Ja'Whaun Bentley, and Groh said there's a level of internal excitement with the linebackers. Also, safety Jabrill Peppers projects to play more in the box in certain packages, and fellow safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger can as well.

7. Mac elevating: Strange said he received a welcome text message from quarterback Mac Jones, who invited him to dinner at Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse on Friday. A native of Tennessee who was making his first trip to New England, Strange said the gesture made him feel like he was home.

Jones' invitation reflects what some teammates relay has been evolving behind the scenes, with Jones showing increasing comfort stepping into a leadership role while also letting his own personality come out.

"He's a great guy and just as funny," center David Andrews told season-ticket members at the team's annual draft party Thursday. "He also loves playing this game. He loves the grind of this game. The preparation. He's such a smart guy. Being an undrafted guy, there's not a lot of pressure on you. Being a first-round quarterback, I can't imagine the pressure. And I can't say enough about how he handled it."

8. White not cleared: When the Patriots take the field for voluntary offseason workouts this month, veteran running back James White (hip) likely won't be participating. White said at the draft party: "I still have a little while to go [after] a pretty rough injury." If third-year running back J.J. Taylor wants to make a decisive move to show he's ready for the role, he has a golden opportunity this spring.

9. Brooks covers Texas: Groh, the Patriots' director of player personnel whose fire and passion percolated late Friday night in his media Q&A, classily highlighted the work of area scout Alex Brooks after the Patriots selected players from Texas-based schools in Thornton (Baylor) and Marcus Jones (Houston). Brooks, entering his fifth season with the Patriots, covers Texas as part of his broader Southwest responsibilities. He played football himself at West Virginia (2013-16), and spent the spring of 2018 coaching at John Carroll University before joining the Patriots' personnel department.

10. Did you know? Strange, whose full name is Devin Cole Strange, is the first player from UT-Chattanooga to be drafted since offensive lineman Corey Levin went in the sixth round in 2017. Strange tops Terrell Owens (89th in 1996) as the highest-ever Moc drafted into the NFL, and is the second UT-Chattanooga player drafted by the Patriots. Running back Marrio Grier (sixth round 1996) was the other.