Patriots

Could Pierre Strong Jr. be the next big thing for the Patriots at running back?

Strong Jr. brings speed to the running back position the Patriots haven't had in years -- a sign that they're looking for more explosive play from the position.

Pierre Strong Jr. Patriots
South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr. cuts through the Indiana State defense during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 in Terre Haute, Ind. Joseph C. Garza/The Tribune-Star
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With all the other positions the Patriots had to stock with more talent this offseason, you might have thought the team wouldn’t invest much capital at running back in the 2022 NFL Draft.

So naturally, New England drafted two Day 3 backs: Pierre Strong Jr. (Round 4) and Kevin Harris (Round 6).

When you think about it, the fact that they did so isn’t that surprising: the Patriots typically invest a solid amount of draft capital at running back and are among the best teams in the league at getting value out of their running back draft picks.

Also, their biggest-name back, Damien Harris, will be a free agent, and it feels unlikely the team will keep him around unless it’s on a very team-friendly deal.

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But after Rhamondre Stevenson, who looks primed to take on a bigger role in that case, what’s next at the position with James White coming off of a significant injury and is on an incentive-laden deal?

The answer might just be Strong.

The outlook

New England clearly went into the draft looking to prioritize speed at their skill positions, trading up in the second round to grab the fastest receiver in this year’s draft class (Tyquan Thornton) and nabbing the NFL Combine’s fastest running back (Strong) in the fourth round.

To put it into perspective, the Patriots haven’t had a running back this fast on their team since Danny Woodhead, who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash when he came out of the draft. Strong runs a 4.37, and he looks every bit of it when he’s running away from people for long touchdowns.

Strong has easy long speed that will stress defenses out when he gets the corner or if he catches the ball in space with room to run. His running style is also a solid mixture of downhill but patient, showing off an ability to set up blocks and make decisive cuts all while moving north and south. You typically won’t find him dancing too much in the backfield.

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His aggressive, forward-moving style also helps him elude defenders in the open field, using his momentum to drag people or power right through arm tackles.

Being such a linear runner can be limiting for Strong early in his career, though. He becomes dramatically less effective if you can make him stop his feet behind the line of scrimmage, and he might not have a powerful enough build to churn through NFL defenders for extra yards yet. As dangerous as Strong is when there are holes for him to choose from, it could be harder for him to find the smaller cracks available at the NFL level — at least to start.

On top of that, the Jackrabbits running back fumbled five times last season — something Belichick and his coaching staff will not accept from a rookie (see: Stevenson after the first Dolphins game last year). If the Patriots see balls hitting the ground, it’s going to be a quiet year for Strong.

Then, there’s the question of what he’ll bring in the passing game and whether or not it’s enough to get him on the field out of the gate.

South Dakota State liked to split Strong out into the slot and throw him the occasional screen or swing pass to get him into space, and he showed off big-time burst and the ability to create yards after the catch.

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The “after the catch” part is the issue, though: he doesn’t have very natural hands and saw a few catchable balls clang off of them on targets down the field. Strong seems to have the shiftiness as a route-runner to become a mismatch for linebackers, but his hands have to be more reliable.

He also wasn’t asked to do a lot of strenuous work as a pass-protector, which means he’s likely not the heir-apparent to White in the Patriots’ backfield just yet.

Unlike Stevenson, who started showing out as a tough runner the moment the pads came on in training camp and seized his opportunity after a few early mistakes, it feels more likely Strong will get the Patriots running back redshirt while he improves as a third-down option going forward.

But if Strong can make himself useful as a special teamer, whether that’s on returns or in kick coverage, getting a few carries will be on the table for him this year. If he does something with those touches, look out.

Also, don’t be surprised if Belichick eventually comes to love the idea of Strong throwing a pass or two in a game: he threw for six touchdowns in college.

Best case scenario

Strong makes an impression with his speed and challenges for a role as a kick returner and gunner on kick and punt returns. All the while, he shows off solid hands and gets better with his pass protection as training camp progresses.

His in-game preseason carries and training camp production prove so eye-opening that Belichick lets him sneak on the active roster a few times as a rookie at some point just to see what he can do.

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The rookie audition goes so well that the Patriots decide they can live without re-signing Harris and go into 2023 with Strong serving as the primary backup to Stevenson.

Worst case

Strong struggles with putting the ball on the ground in practice and doesn’t see the field at all in Year 1 as a result. He’d get a chance to contribute in Year 2, but an uninspiring rookie season from a process perspective might encourage the team to sign another veteran to put over him in Year 2 — even elevate the sixth-round pick Harris over him.

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