Rookies Bailey Zappe, Cole Strange already making impact for Patriots

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

1. Draft trade paying off: When coach Bill Belichick trades down in the NFL draft, like he did in the 2022 first round, it is often met with a collective groan from the majority of the Patriots’ fan base. Then, when he selects a player few projected as a first-round pick, as he did with Tennessee-Chattanooga guard Cole Strange, the collective groan can be heard that much louder.

Time will ultimately tell if Belichick’s decision was sound, but with the Patriots visiting the Cleveland Browns on Sunday (1 p.m. ET. CBS), it’s timely to revisit the early returns on that trade based on recent events in New England and around the NFL.

The present snapshot looks good for Belichick and first-year director of player personnel Matt Groh.

By moving down from No. 21 to No. 29 in the trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots acquired a third-round pick (94) and a fourth-round selection (121). They then traded the third-rounder to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for a fourth-round pick (137) and 2023 third-rounder.

All told, the Patriots ended up with Strange (29), cornerback Jack Jones (121), quarterback Bailey Zappe (137) and a 2023 third-rounder that could be in the mid-to-late 60s, as Carolina (1-4) is off to a shaky start. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was fired Monday.

The Chiefs, who traded up to select cornerback Trent McDuffie at 21, also have reason to currently feel good about the deal.

As for what Patriots rookies have contributed:

  • Strange has been a starter since Day 1, playing 97.4% of the offensive snaps. He hasn’t been dominating by any stretch but seems to be steadily improving. ESPN’s pass block win rate, which measures a lineman’s ability to hold a block for at least 2.5 seconds, rates him at 95% -- the second-best mark of any rookie offensive lineman, behind only Ravens center Tyler Linderbaum.

  • Jones is coming off back-to-back games with an interception (one a pick-six of Aaron Rodgers), becoming the first Patriots rookie to accomplish that feat since Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon in 2013. He is one of only four NFL rookies to record multiple interceptions at this point, despite playing significantly fewer snaps (169) than others.

  • Zappe has been thrust into action much earlier than the Patriots ever anticipated due to injuries to Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer, helping keep the team afloat by staying within himself and protecting the football.

One common thread between Strange, Jones and Zappe is that many expected them to be selected later in the draft. Belichick & Co., for better or worse, have never been shy about being an outlier.

Strange, for one, isn’t about to play the I-told-you-so game.

“It’s just a bunch of noise,” he said this week. “I just don’t really care what anyone thinks other than my coaches and teammates, and to my knowledge, they aren’t saying [anything bad]. So people on Twitter, or anyone else that has something to weigh in on that, I could care less what their opinion is anyway. If that’s what they think of me, they’re entitled to their opinion.”

There is no added motivation for him.

“I guess it would seem like there would be, but I don’t know if it’s anything other than just regularly trying to fulfill in my heart what is my own potential,” he said. “I’m trying to improve myself as a football player, and paying attention to that kind of stuff isn’t going to make me any better.”

2. Belichick’s return: Since becoming Patriots coach in 2000, this marks Belichick’s fifth time returning to Cleveland, where he held his first job as an NFL head coach (1991 to 1995). It was telling that the storyline didn’t come up once this week in Belichick’s media availabilities. But in Cleveland, Belichick remained a hot topic. “We’ve talked about him every day,” said longtime Browns reporter Tony Grossi, who hosts a show on 850 ESPN. “For those of us who lived through those five years, it’s still a big deal, especially because of the fact he turned into a coaching GOAT rivaled only by [Browns legend] Paul Brown.”

3. Belichick vs. Brissett: Belichick selected quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the third round of the 2016 draft and now -- with Brissett starting for the Browns until Deshaun Watson returns from suspension -- faces him for the first time as an opponent. “Jacoby looks like Jacoby -- a big kid with a strong arm. He’s tough and smart,” said Belichick, who is 7-3 as Patriots coach facing quarterbacks who started their careers in New England (5-1 vs. Drew Bledsoe, 0-1 vs. Tom Brady, 1-0 vs. Matt Cassel, 0-1 vs. Jimmy Garoppolo and 1-0 vs. Brian Hoyer).

4. Red zone struggles: The Patriots have advanced inside the red zone 15 times this season and managed just six touchdowns, a percentage that ranks them tied for third worst in the NFL. That has been one telling area that has contributed to their 2-3 start and last-place standing in the AFC East. The message from players: Greater attention to detail is needed to turn things around. “We have to finish drives. We can’t go all these games and just kick field goals,” center and longtime captain David Andrews said.

5. Meyers-Edelman link: Receiver Jakobi Meyers leads the Patriots with 20 catches for 261 yards despite missing two games due to a knee injury, which reflects his growing value to the team. Longtime captain Devin McCourty and Belichick mentioned Julian Edelman when asked about Meyers this week -- McCourty noting how their shared backgrounds playing quarterback before converting to receiver contribute to their knack for understanding leverage, and Belichick highlighting the similarity of their developmental arc. Considering Belichick refers to Edelman as “one of the most dependable players we’ve ever had,” that’s lofty company for Meyers to keep.

6. Winovich vs. Wilson: The Patriots-Browns matchup provides a springboard to revisit the offseason linebacker trade that sent Chase Winovich to Cleveland and Mack Wilson Sr. to New England. Winovich remains on injured reserve (hamstring) after playing in the first two games of the season, having been on the field for 26 defensive snaps and 18 on special teams (registering one tackle and two quarterback hits). Meanwhile, Wilson has played 119 defensive snaps and 63 on special teams, and he’s been credited with 13 tackles and 1 pass defended.

7. Prepping for Garrett: Browns defensive end Myles Garrett can change the game in an instant, and in a reflection of that, Patriots left tackle Trent Brown relayed that three different players filled Garrett’s role on the scout team – Matthew Judon, Josh Uche and LaBryan Ray. That wouldn’t usually be something a player of Judon’s caliber would do. “It speaks to his leadership qualities,” Brown said.

8. Collins’ return: Linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. has kept a low profile since returning to the Patriots on the practice squad, which is his fourth stint with the team. Belichick acknowledged Collins had offseason surgery, hinting that there’s a conditioning process he’s still going through before he’ll be considered for a promotion to the roster. “He’s a little ways off. It will take a little bit of time,” Belichick said on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “We’ll see how quickly he progresses and when, or if, he’ll be able to be active for the roster.”

9. A ’dog at Dawg Pound: The Patriots are a 2.5-point underdog against the Browns, which breaks a streak of 12 straight Patriots-Browns games in which New England was favored. That makes sense considering that since 2000, the Patriots have the best winning percentage in the league (71.5%) while the Browns have the worst (33.7%). The last time the Browns were favored in the series was the 1994 wild-card playoff game … when Belichick’s Browns topped Bill Parcells’ Patriots 20-13.

10. Did you know? The Patriots have had rookies play 819 snaps through five games this season, which ranks 18th in the NFL. The Bears, who visit the Patriots in Week 7, entered this week’s action with the highest total of snaps played by rookies (1,749).