First up was South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong with the 127th overall pick in the fourth round. Two rounds later, as the 183rd player to hear his name called, Kevin Harris out of South Carolina was chosen by the Patriots.
While only Strong should be considered a lock to make the roster based on his draft status, the two selections show that New England is still willing to invest capital in the position. Those latest investments were made despite a) the Patriots having a deep running back group led by Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and James White, and b) running the football being far less efficient than throwing it.
Despite that second point becoming more and more pronounced each season, Bill Belichick and his team continue to keep the pipeline running. Harris, Stevenson, Strong and Harris were all drafted by the Patriots in the last four years.
As a result of those investments, and the one made in Sony Michel in the first round back in 2018, the Patriots are now ranked at the top of the NFL over a five-year span in draft capital spent on running backs:
Obviously that graphic alone is not the be-all and end-all of analyzing roster construction. The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, for example, both rank near the bottom of the league in draft capital spent because of the personnel they already had under contract; Alvin Kamara (Saints) and Christian McCaffrey (Panthers) were all drafted just outside that five-year window, for example.
Nonetheless, we can draw some conclusions from a Patriots perspective. The most noteworthy is that they were actively looking to bolster the position group just as Tom Brady’s run as starting quarterback was coming to an end: they drafted Michel and Harris in 2018 and 2019, respectively, with Brady entering his age 41 and 42 seasons.
In theory, doing so does make some sense. Having a strong running game would help New England’s offense even with a declining Brady and/or his eventual successor under center.
To a degree, it worked: their ground game was instrumental in the Patriots’ Super Bowl run in 2018, and it also was the only consistently successful way of moving the football during the Cam Newton interlude of 2020.
That being said, running the football is less efficient than throwing it.
Take the aforementioned 2018 playoff run as an example: despite going run heavy, New England still posted a higher EPA per pass play (0.221) than run play (0.054). And just last year, with rookie quarterback Mac Jones under center, the team was significantly more effective passing the ball (0.133) than running it (-0.012).
That does not mean the Patriots should stop investing in running backs altogether, but that their value has decreased compared to the 2000s and early 2010s. That means that a player like Pierre Strong heard his name called in Round 4 this year when he possibly would have been a Day 2 selection 10-15 years ago.
We all know Bill Belichick and company know a market deficiency when they see one, for better or worse. Whether it makes sense to take this approach in the year 2022 can be debated — for what it is worth, Sony Michel, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson were/are all productive players for the team — but one thing is obvious.
Nobody loves drafting running backs as much as Belichick and the Patriots.