With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with rookie running back Pierre Strong.
Name: Pierre Strong Jr.
Position: Running back
Jersey number: TBD (Offseason No. 54)
Opening day age: 23
Size: 5-foot-11, 205 pounds
Contract status: Unsigned draft pick
What is his experience? Despite a productive high school career, Strong did not receive any significant college interest following his senior season. He entered the college ranks as a two-star recruit and received only a handful of FCS offers. He eventually decided to take his talents to South Dakota State, where he spent his freshman campaign as a redshirt. However, he became a prominent member of the Jackrabbits’ offense in Year 2 and went on to appear in 48 games with 34 starts over the next four seasons.
In total, Strong touched the football 693 times along the way. He registered a combined 631 rushing attempts for 4,527 yards as well as 40 touchdowns. He furthermore caught 62 passes for 581 yards and three more scores. On top of it all, Strong also had six passing touchdowns. A team captain in each of his last two seasons, he was recognized as an All-American in all four of his non-redshirt seasons and earned first-team All-MVFC honors each of his last three seasons in Brookings.
What did his 2021 season look like? With Covid-19 disrupting operations all over the college football landscape, South Dakota State was forced to play its 2020 season between February and May 2021. As a result, Strong and the rest of the school’s returning players had to face a comparatively quick turnaround before their “real” 2021 campaign. Nonetheless, the redshirt senior was able to play some impressive football and deliver the best statistical season of his five-year career as a Jackrabbit.
Once again serving as the lead running back, Strong started all 15 of his team’s games and finished as its most productive offensive player. Touching the ball 262 times, he gained a combined 1,836 yards from scrimmage — by far the best output of his career. A majority of those yards came as a ball carrier: Strong ran the football 240 times for 1,686 yards while also finding the end zone 18 times. Finishing as the number one rusher in the entire FCS, he helped the Jackrabbits go 11-4 and reach the Division I Semifinal.
His contributions to the offense extended beyond his skills as a running back, though. Strong, who was named a team captain for a second straight season, also caught 22 passes for 150 yards and even went 4-for-4 as a passer for 62 yards and four touchdowns. As a result of his impressive outing, he earned several individual accolades: Strong was named first-team All-American, first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference and was named the conference’s Player of the Week two times.
Nonetheless, there were some questions about Strong heading into his draft preparation. For starters, he was credited with four dropped passes and also fumbled the ball four times. Furthermore, the majority of his production came against FCS-level competition: Strong faced only one FBS team over the past two seasons, going up against Colorado State on 2021 opening weekend. That being said, he did manage to gain 146 yards on 16 touches that day and score a pair of touchdowns.
What is his projected role? The Patriots invested a fourth-round draft pick to bring Strong aboard, and he projects as a rotational option at the running back position in 2022. Lacking the bulk to serve as a consistent early-down and between-the-tackles runner in the mold of new teammates Damien Harris or Rhamondre Stevenson, he could find success as a change-of-pace back like Rex Burkhead in 2022. In the long term, he might even become the heir to the receiving/up-tempo job that has been held by James White since 2015.
Does he have positional versatility? Besides being an able ball carrier and receiver out of the backfield, Strong also has experience as a passer. He attempted nine throws during his four non-redshirt seasons at South Dakota State, and completed all of them for a combined 208 yards and six touchdowns. As mentioned above, four of those attempts — resulting 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 during the pre-draft process.
What is his special teams value? Strong ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine earlier this year, the fastest such time at his position group. His elite speed makes him an option as a kickoff and punt returner, even though he has seen only limited action in this department in college. 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, though, after already doing just that in mandatory minicamp.
What is his salary cap situation? As of June 15, Strong has not yet signed his rookie contract with the Patriots. Once that happens — likely at one point before training camp — he will hit the team’s books with a salary cap number of $178,357: his fully-guaranteed prorated signing bonus is worth that much and will be the only trace Strong will leave on the team’s cap until the NFL’s Top-51 rule gets lifted in September. At that point his $705,000 salary will be added to the mix to result in a total cap hit of $883,357.
How safe is his roster spot? The Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick have never released a fourth-round draft pick during his rookie year, and it is highly unlikely that Strong will break that streak. His spot on the roster is therefore safe, but the question becomes how much action he will see. Much of it will depend on James White’s recovery from a season-ending hip injury: if White misses some time in training camp and into the season, the door would be open for Strong to play a prominent role right away. If not, however, Strong might be headed down a familiar path into de facto redshirt territory; following others such as White or Damien Harris, who saw marginal action as rookies.
One-sentence projection: Strong will make the Patriots’ 53-man roster, but unless he can carve out a role as a return man will have a tough time making the game-day squad on a consistent basis.