The New England Patriots appeared set at the running back position entering the 2022 NFL Draft; the belief was that any potential investments would only happen in the later rounds if at all. Instead, the team had different plans: two players at the position were added on Day 3, with the first coming off the board with the 127th overall selection in the fourth round.
Due to his draft status, Pierre Strong out of South Dakota State projects as a roster lock. So, let’s get to meet him.
Name: Pierre Strong Jr.
School: South Dakota State (RS-Senior)
Position: Running back
Opening day age: 23
Size: 5113, 207 lbs, 31 7/8 arm, 75 7/8 wingspan, 9 1/4 hand
Measurements: 4.37 40-yard dash, 38” vertical jump, 9’11” broad jump, 4.25 short shuttle, 6.95 3-cone, 16 bench press
Career: Strong did not receive any significant interest coming out of high school, entering the college ranks as a two-star recruit. He did receive a handful of FCS offers, however, and eventually decided to take his talents to South Dakota State. He spent his next five years with the Jackrabbits, and appeared in 48 games with 34 starts.
In total, he touched the football 693 times. Strong had 631 rushing attempts for a combined 4,527 yards and 40 touchdowns. He also caught 62 passes for an additional 581 yards and three more scores. On top of it all, he had six passing touchdowns. A team captain in each of his last two seasons, Strong was recognized as an All-American in all four of his non-redshirt seasons, including twice as a first-teamer in 2020 and 2021.
Strengths: Strong is a speedster, running the fastest 40-yard dash among his position group at the Scouting Combine. A dual-threat back, who has proven himself capable of making plays on the ground and in the passing game, he has combines speed, explosiveness and agility.
Weaknesses: Measuring at 5-foot-11, 207 pounds at the Combine, Strong is undersized and lacks the power to push the pocket. He will need to prove himself as an NFL-level pass protector, and also has to work on his ball security after fumbling five times as a senior.
What is his projected role in New England? Strong projects as a do-it-all back for the Patriots. He likely lacks the bulk to serve as an early-down, between-the-tackles runner in the mold of Damien Harris or Rhamondre Stevenson, but he could find success as a change-of-pace back — think: Rex Burkhead — or eventually the heir to the receiving/up-tempo throne James White has been sitting on ever since 2015.
Where does he fit on the running back depth chart? With Harris and Stevenson locked into the early-down roles, Strong projects as a rotational option in select situations and packages. His overall usage will likely depend on James White’s recovery from a season-ending hip injury suffered last September; if White starts the season on the physically unable to perform list, Strong should be considered the frontrunner to fill his role.
Does he have positional versatility? Besides being an able ball carrier and receiver out of the backfield, Strong — as noted above — also has experience as a passer. He attempted nine throws during his four non-redshirt seasons in Brookings, and completed all of them for a combined 208 yards and six touchdowns. Four of those attempts covering a combined 62 yards and ending in four scores came during his 2021 senior campaign. Strong’s ability to contribute in various ways certainly had to be attractive to New England’s scouts and decision makers.
What is his special teams value? Strong’s speed makes him an option as a kickoff and punt returner, but he has seen only limited action in this department at South Dakota State. In total, he returned five kickoffs for an average gain of 25.4 yards. The Patriots might give him an opportunity in this area moving forward, but there are more experienced return options on the roster at the moment.
One-sentence verdict: With James White’s future in question, Strong could become a long-term replacement for the long-time team captain.