FOXBORO, Mass. — Pierre Strong has yet to miss a Patriots training camp practice. The rookie running back has been there every day, suited up in his temporary No. 54 practice jersey.
But for the opening week of camp, Strong was little more than a practice observer. He’d warm up with his teammates, then split off to a separate field for conditioning and rehab, an undisclosed injury keeping him out of all competitive and full-team drills.
It wasn’t until Day 7 that Strong began to increase his level of participation. On Day 8, he logged his first touch in full-speed 11-on-11s, taking a handoff from third-string quarterback Bailey Zappe toward the end of practice.
Training camp reps are vital for all first-year players, but especially for Patriots running backs, who often are stapled to the bench as rookies due to holes in their game (pass protection, knowledge of the offense, etc.). Strong’s early camp limitations may prove costly for the fourth-round draft pick, who’s also making the tricky transition from an FCS program (South Dakota State) to the NFL.
But the 23-year-old was a full participant in both practices this week — New England’s 10th and 11th of camp — and looks poised to play in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium.
And while it’s far too early to project what Strong’s role might be this season, he may already be making a move up the depth chart. During one red-zone period Tuesday, he repped ahead of third-year pro J.J. Taylor and sixth-round rookie Kevin Harris, seeing action with Brian Hoyer and the second-team offense.
“He missed a little time at the start of camp and has come back lately, so he’s a little bit behind,” head coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “But he’s working hard, catching up. I’m glad he’s out there. I’m glad we’re working with him.”
Strong was a prolific rusher at SDSU, posting three straight 1,000-yard seasons, scoring 40 rushing touchdowns — including nine from 50-plus yards out — and averaging 7.2 yards per carry over his college career. As a senior last season, he led Division I’s lower level in rushing yards (1,686) and ranked second in rushing touchdowns (18), then wowed at the NFL Scouting Combine, running the 40-yard dash in a position-best 4.37 seconds.
But with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson atop the Patriots’ running back depth chart, Strong’s best hope for early playing time likely is on third downs and passing situations. A virtual roster lock based on his draft slot, he’s been viewed as a possible successor to James White, who remains on the physically unable to perform list following hip surgery and might not be ready to start the season.
Strong wasn’t heavily involved in the passing game in college (22 catches for 105 yards last season), but evaluators believe he has the receiving and pass-blocking traits to succeed in that role while adding an element of big-play potential. He showed that ability in the East-West Shrine Bowl, taking a screen pass 65 yards for a touchdown.
“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,” Shrine Bowl director Eric Galko told NESN.com this spring. “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.”
Thus far in camp, Strong has only seen a handful of targets in competitive team drills, hasn’t taken any reps with Mac Jones and the first-team offense and is clearly behind Harris, Stevenson and running back/wideout Ty Montgomery, who’s built a compelling case for a 53-man roster spot. The Patriots have begun working the rookie in in multiple ways, though, increasing his reps and lining him up in the slot and out wide on occasion.
Strong said he “very seldom” aligned outside of the backfield in college but added: “I feel like I’m an athlete. I can do anything on the field.” His work as a pass-catcher this summer, he said, is going “real well.”
“Anything I can do to help the team win, I’m going to be there to do it,” said Strong, who also threw six touchdown passes off trick plays in college. “If that’s catching, running, whatever that is, I’m just willing to help the team out.”
Strong’s first true chance to prove himself will come Thursday night.
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