Pierre Strong Film Review: Is Rookie Patriots’ James White Successor?

What can the fourth-round rookie bring to New England's backfield?


May 16

Want a snapshot of what rookie running back Pierre Strong can bring to the New England Patriots’ offense? Pull up the film from this year’s East-West Shrine Bowl.

During the third quarter of that pre-draft all-star game — coincidentally, with soon-to-be Patriots teammate Matthew Judon looking on from the broadcast booth — Strong caught a short screen pass, broke one arm tackle behind the line and another 25 yards downfield and proceeded to use his prodigious speed to dust the entire West Team defense for a 65-yard touchdown.

“Hey!” Judon exclaimed after the South Dakota State product weaved behind a blocking receiver to reach the goal line. “That’s a way to use your block.”

That long score was Strong’s only notable Shrine Bowl highlight — he had the one catch and carried once for 4 yards — but it illustrated the big-play ability that made him one of the most dangerous running backs in the Football Championship Subdivision and might have inspired New England to select him in the fourth round (127th overall).

In college, most of those big plays came in the running game. Strong averaged a gaudy 7.2 yards per carry during his career at Division I’s lower level, surpassing 1,000 yards in each of his three full seasons (the 2020 FCS campaign was moved to the spring and shortened due to COVID-19). He scored 40 career rushing touchdowns, and nearly a quarter of them (nine total) were from 50-plus yards out.

As a senior last season, Strong led the FCS in rushing yards (1,686) and ranked second in rushing touchdowns (18), helping propel a South Dakota State team that lost in the national semifinals. But though he was highly productive as the Jackrabbits’ bell-cow back, he’ll most likely fill a different role in New England.

With Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson already forming a formidable early-down duo for the Patriots, Strong projects as an intriguing complement and potential long-term replacement to veteran third-down back James White, who turned 30 in February and has yet to fully recover from season-ending hip surgery.

“He can be very explosive,” Shrine Bowl director of operations and player personnel Eric Galko recently told NESN.com “I would say from a Patriots perspective, yeah, I think he starts working a lot more on those third-down roles, maybe as more of a pass-blocking option to James White’s pass-catching option, and then slowly eats into that. But don’t be surprised if they also work him heavily in the rotation.”

Strong wasn’t a high-volume pass-catcher at SDSU (22-150-0 last season; 62-581-3 for his career), but he looked comfortable in that area, showing sure hands and solid route-running chops for his position. On this play against Southern Illinois, Strong lined up in the left slot, juked past a safety at the top of a slant route and raced through the open field to pick up 25 yards after the catch:

Galko also raved about Strong’s pass-blocking ability. That wasn’t among his primary responsibilities as South Dakota State’s lead back, but he flashed it in spurts, especially in a late-season loss to rival South Dakota.

“I think his two best skill sets right now for the NFL are his pass-blocking and ability as an out-of-the-backfield route-runner and explosive player, and then as an interior zone-blocking runner who will deliver on big plays,” Galko said. “So I think right now, NFL teams maybe don’t view him as this complete, three-down, 25(-carry) workhorse-type running back, but he is one of, if not the best pass-blocking running backs in this entire class.”

Shoddy pass protection can keep young running backs stapled to the sideline in New England, so this bodes well for Strong’s chances of contributing early.

But if his primary role is as a White-esque passing-down player, his rushing potential shouldn’t be discounted. He’s not the biggest back (5-foot-11, 207 pounds) and won’t run over many defenders at the NFL level, but his elite speed and burst (95th-percentile 40-yard dash, 91st-percentile 10-yard split) and savvy vision and patience make him a constant home-run threat, capable of breaking off big gains from anywhere on the field.

“He’s as explosive as Rhamondre Stevenson,” Galko said, referencing the Patriots’ hard-charging 2021 draftee. “Different body type, but he can kind of bring that home-run punch for a defense that’s been lulled to sleep by Damien Harris or Rhamondre. You bring in Pierre Strong for a quick inside-zone play, it could be a 60-yard run.”

Don’t be surprised if the Patriots also give Strong a few pass-throwing opportunities. A quarterback in his youth, he was a legitimate weapon as a gadget-play passer in college, going a perfect 9-for-9 for 208 yards and six touchdowns. Four of those scores came last season.

Four different non-QBs have attempted passes for New England over the last three seasons, including one by White in 2019.

As an FCS product, Strong enters the NFL with obvious quality-of-competition concerns, but he impressed in his lone FBS audition last season, going for 138 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries (plus a textbook blitz pickup) in a road win over Colorado State.

“That’s the game I felt like everyone wanted to see,” Strong said in his introductory conference call.

Strong will have his first true chance to showcase his skills for the Patriots when organized team activities begin next week. He’ll be competing for reps in a New England backfield that features Harris, Stevenson, White, third-year pro J.J. Taylor and 2022 sixth-rounder Kevin Harris.

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