For most FCS prospects in the NFL Draft process, starting low on draft boards and working your way into higher rounds is the norm. Always facing the level of competition question, scouts and analysts first want to see these players against other draft prospects at all-star games and how they test at the combine or pro days before projecting them as early draft picks.
Several FCS players this year have gone from sixth or seventh round projections to Day 2 (rounds two and three) projections. Chattanooga interior offensive lineman Cole Strange is a great example.
Since early February, Strange’s stock has skyrocketed.
He impressed at the Senior Bowl, drawing rave reviews for his strength at the point of attack. Then the 6-foot-5, 307-pounder backed up his play with his physical attributes at the combine. He had the best broad jump among offensive linemen (10’0″), was No. 2 in bench press reps (31), had the No. 6 three-cone time (7.44 seconds), and the No. 7 20-yard shuttle time (4.50 seconds).
Strange is now viewed as a Day 2 pick in recent mock drafts by notable analysts: ESPN’s Mel Kiper — 2nd round to the Bucs; The Athletic’s Dane Brugler — 3rd round to the 49ers; ESPN’s Jordan Reid — 3rd round to the Rams.
Pro Football Focus ranks Strange the No. 86 overall prospect. And Draft Scout ranks him the No. 73 overall prospect and the No. 5 interior offensive lineman with a second-to-third-round projection.
But while Strange has enjoyed this rise in attention, it’s also a position he always saw himself in during his time as a five-year starter for the Mocs.
“Honestly, I felt that way for a while [that the NFL was a realistic path] for me,” Strange told HERO Sports. “I think it appeared that way publicly this past year after the Kentucky game because that was our big FBS game of the year, and I played well. But I’ve always believed it. Even when I switched over to the offensive line and I was struggling in 1-on-1s, I just knew I was going to get to the NFL somehow. I just didn’t know how or when.”
A two-star defensive end recruit in high school, the Knoxville, Tennessee, native chose nearby Chattanooga over FBS offers from Army and Air Force and a few other FCS programs. He redshirted in 2016, making the switch to the offensive line. Strange then started the next five seasons thanks to an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID exception rule, going from a 2017 Freshman All-American to a four-time All-SoCon Team selection to 2021 First Team FCS All-American honors from HERO Sports, Stats Perform, AFCA, Walter Camp, and Phil Steele.
Strange showed his versatility and durability throughout his college career. He started 41 games at left guard, two games at left tackle, and one game at center. Strange said most NFL teams see him as a center, some like him at guard, but all like his ability to play both.
“I think that’s one of my qualities. Several of the teams that talk to me, whether they see me as a center or the few that see me as a guard, the best thing is that I’m able to play both. And I have played mostly guard my career, and so the fact that they’re looking at me as a center, I view it as I can learn that position, but if something happened to a guard, I can play there too. That’s a huge deal. Especially because they can only travel so many guys. Having a guy who could play more than one spot is a big plus.”
Since the combine, Strange’s schedule has been busy. He has flown out to five top 30 visits, where each NFL team can bring in up to 30 players to its facility for interviews, meetings, and physicals. Strange told HERO Sports the teams he’s had visits with are Minnesota, Denver, Seattle, Tampa Bay, and Miami. He also has done numerous Zoom calls with franchises.
At the top 30 visits, Strange says it is more of a personality and football intellect evaluation. He meets with the o-line coach and offensive coordinator. They teach him aspects within their system on the whiteboard, whether it’s a protection, a run concept, or the calls he would make playing center. Strange is then asked to teach it back to them.
Strange has knocked the process out of the park. He is a draft lock at this point. Signs are strong that a Day 2 selection is on the table as the buzz around his name hits its peak shortly before the draft. But Strange has made it a point to keep a level head throughout this time, although the hype is hard to ignore.
“You know, I’ve seen some [mock drafts] a time or two,” Strange said. “It’s mostly just because my dad and my brother check it out. In the years past, we’ve always had an interest in the draft and watched it and followed it. But this year with me being involved, they’re much, much more involved. So if they see a mock draft where my name is pretty high, then they’ll let me know. And it is really cool. But for the most part, I try not to pay too much attention to it. Because I’ve tried to maintain the whole time that the guys who are putting out mock drafts aren’t the general managers or the head coaches of the teams. Those are the guys who are actually going to make the picks and have the say. So it’s cool to hear and talk about, but I just don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.”
Strange has all the tools to be an impact player for an NFL team. His explosiveness and power off the ball coupled with athleticism makes him a projected starter in the league.
But he also knows proving he is that caliber of a player once he’s on a team is the real goal.
“I never take for granted, or take lightly, an NFL team talking to me, much less flying me out there so I get to meet all of the coaches,” Strange said. “But there is some truth to the fact that I have believed it and I was confident in the fact that this will happen. And it’s one of those things that a bunch of the teams have told me is that this league will humble you incredibly fast. No matter what round you are and no matter what position you play, it will humble you. So it’s one of those things where I do believe in myself. I am confident. But I just know that this period and this little phase going on right now is not even really the start of things. It’s very cool. But it’s a media production, you know what I mean? The actual thing that’s going to matter is whenever I get to a team and I’m able to start working. Whether I’m in the seventh round or the second round, that’s going to be what I’m looking forward to most and what the biggest actual part of this whole thing is, is actually getting to work.”
More FCS Pro Feature Stories: