NFL Notes: Patriots rookie RB Pierre Strong riding huge chip on his shoulder

As the fastest running back at the NFL’s Scouting Combine, it’s easy to think Pierre Strong’s greatest asset is speed.

While the 4.37 he ran in the 40-yard dash will certainly come in handy in the pros, he actually has another significant attribute that figures to propel him to greater heights.

What could be better than speed? The size of the chip on his shoulder.

Strong wasn’t highly recruited out of high school. He had no offers and little interest from any prominent schools.

No matter. The Patriots 4th-round pick has used that slight to drive him.

Charles Davis, an analyst for NFL on CBS, who also does draft analysis for NFL Network, brought up Strong’s back story and believes the giant-sized chip has served him well during his college career.

In his senior year alone, Strong rushed for 1,686 yards on 240 carries with 18 touchdowns.

“He’s from Arkansas, and none of the Arkansas schools gave him a look. Not Arkansas. Not Arkansas State. Any of them. That’s how he wound up at South Dakota State,” said Davis. “He went there, and just kept getting better and better along the way.

“So he’s a high-volume runner with something to prove, and the way New England rolls running backs, he’ll have an opportunity.”

Andre Crenshaw, Strong’s running backs coach at South Dakota State, also mentioned the chip prominently. It was the first thing that came to mind when asked what strikes him most about Strong as a player.

“Coming out of high school, he wasn’t highly recruited and then coming out of college, people think because he played at the FCS level, he doesn’t have the talent level to play at a high level,” said Crenshaw. “So he’s always had that chip. His thought process is to continue to prove people wrong.

“He has the want-to, and the willingness to work as hard as he can until he gets everything out of every opportunity he has. That’s kind of his upside in what drives him to be as good as he was for us.”

Plenty of great athletes have been motivated by the belief they were treated or judged unfairly along the road. It can be a powerful tool. Tom Brady still uses the slight of being taken in the sixth round of the NFL draft as a motivator.

Along with not getting any attention coming out of high school, Strong didn’t get an invite to the Senior Bowl, so that adds to the size of the chip.

Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy, however, said he regretted not inviting Strong to Mobile, Ala., for the yearly showcase of college talent.

“I think Pierre Strong is a good player. I think he’ll factor into the mix, and if I regretted not inviting one player to the Senior Bowl this year, it’s probably Pierre. I really liked him,” Nagy said when reached by the Herald. “You can go back in the fall, I was posting about him in September.

“And there was just enough hesitation league-wide — I don’t think the league saw him running the way he ran (at the NFL Combine). So there was some trepidation there. When I vetted Pierre out to the league, everyone was mostly (saying) mid- to late-Day 3 for him. And now, this was before the combine where he ran 4.3. But there just wasn’t a lot of love.”

He got it at South Dakota State, where he thrived, receiving first-team FCS All-American and All MVFC honors in 2021.

Crenshaw said given Strong’s mindset, there wouldn’t be any need for Bill Belichick to push him to work, study, or do whatever’s necessary to succeed in the NFL.

“He’s going to drive himself,” said Crenshaw. “He’s going to figure out everything he can to will himself to be great.”

That all sounds good. But where does Strong fit in? How can he crack a lineup of backs that features Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and James White?

Given his ability to run the ball, serve as a reliable pass-catcher coming out of the backfield, not to mention throw the ball on occasion, the Patriots are sure to find a way to utilize the back, who was in Foxboro this week for rookie mini-camp.

Initially, the Patriots might try using either Strong or J.J. Taylor in the third-down back role if White isn’t quite ready at the start of the year, coming back from the major hip injury he suffered last year.

If White is healthy and returns to form, or close enough to it at the outset, Strong might have a tougher time jumping in right away.

But given what he brings to the table, Strong should be a nice complementary piece to what the Patriots already have, along with insurance for White.

South Carolina’s Kevin Harris, taken by the Patriots in the sixth round, might also factor in, although he falls more in the Harris, Stevenson mold as a between-the-tackles runner. He’s a power back who also provides depth behind the two lead backs.

Strong, however, has a little more in his bag of tricks.

Eric Galko, the director of football operations and player personnel for the East-West Shrine Bowl, where Strong was a participant, also sounded like a fan.

“His explosiveness as a zone-blocking runner, and his third-down ability makes him a really special player,” Galko said when reached recently. “I’d imagine the Patriots might want to use him as a change-of-pace back … Long-term, he can absolutely be a three-down player in the NFL.”

Crenshaw also didn’t want to pigeonhole Strong as solely a third-down back.

“I think a third-down back is probably the basement for him,” said Crenshaw. “The ceiling for him, I think he’s going to be a three-down back at the NFL level. I have a ton of faith in him and his ability and what he can do.”

Still, there are a few concerns. Strong, at 5-foot-11, 207 pounds, is undersized. That’s one of the knocks. He also had ball security issues, fumbling five times as a senior.

South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong catches a pass at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

That won’t fly in Foxboro. Strong also needs to prove he can pass-protect at the NFL level. Belichick won’t be inclined to use him as a third-down back if he can’t get the hang of blitz pick-up and protect the franchise — Mac Jones.

Galko indicated Strong did a good job in pass protection at the Shrine Bowl. Crenshaw, meanwhile, said he has seen improvement in that area over time, and it shouldn’t be a concern.

“I know people say he needs to work on that, but I thought he made an extremely huge jump in pass protection from previous years, to now his senior year,” said Crenshaw. “He knew it was important for teams to see him pass-protect and put great things on film.

“If you look at film from his senior year, there were times he was putting his face on people, and he’s pass protecting his butt off because he knows the value of it.”

The ultimate hope is that Strong’s speed, and overall ability will help make the Patriots a bit more explosive on offense.

He sure fits in on the trick-play front, having completed all nine passes he was asked to make during his time at South Dakota State, throwing six touchdown passes in the process.

Crenshaw believes the arrow is definitely pointing up for this kid.

“A lot of people talk about the tread on his tires. I think he’s just getting started at just how dynamic and how good of a football player he can be,” said Crenshaw. “He’s still learning, he’s still growing, he’s still developing, so he’s still got a lot of upside.”

And, he still has that monster chip on his shoulder. He still wants to make the doubters eat crow, and according to Crenshaw, the doubting crowd has grown. Some questioned his selection by the Patriots.

“I’ve already seen some comments. He’s probably seen a few, ‘I wish they would have gone a different route, I wish they would have gotten a different kid,’” said Crenshaw, “So for him, all the noise, he doesn’t worry about it. He just likes to prove people wrong. He’s just going to work his tail off to make sure people know who Pierre Strong is.”

The Zappe files

When the Patriots drafted Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe in the fourth round, that was essentially the nail in the coffin for Jarrett Stidham, who was traded Thursday to the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Pats are clearly investing in Zappe to be the eventual backup to Mac Jones. Like Jones, he’s a pocket passer.

NFL Network’s draft analyst Charles Davis said Zappe caught his eye during Senior Bowl week.

“He got better every day at the Senior Bowl, in my humble estimation,” said Davis. “I talked to a few people around, and they said this kid was locked in, wired in. He’s what I’d call an operator.”

Davis meant that in a good way.

“In a lot of ways, he’s Gardner Minshew without the fanfare, without the jorts and all that stuff that goes with being Gardner Minshew,” said Davis. “Zappe is that kind of a guy.”

He’s also the type of quarterback that fits their profile, whether as a starter or a backup.

Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe throws a touchdown pass, his sixth of the game, during the second half of the Boca Bowl NCAA college football game against Appalachian State, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021 in Boca Raton, Fla. Zappe threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns as the Western Kentucky beat Appalachian State 59-38. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

“Look at his touchdown-to-interception ratios. He makes a lot of good decisions,” said Davis. “And, in a lot of ways, he plays a lot like Mac plays. Athletically, they’re built similarly.”

Zappe, who is 6-1, 220 pounds, played most of his college career at FCS Houston Baptist before moving to FBS Western Kentucky of Conference USA as a graduate transfer in 2021.

He threw 62 touchdowns with 11 interceptions with the Hilltoppers during this past season.

Schedule fodder

*** Teams in the AFC West (Chiefs, Chargers, Broncos, Raiders) will be making 19 prime-time appearances collectively. The Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos have five prime-time dates set, with the Raiders having four.

Just for a comparison, teams in the AFC East have 13 games in front of a nationally televised audience. The Bills and Patriots both have five, with the Dolphins (2) and Jets (1) lagging behind.

The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, were the only team not awarded a prime-time game.

*** The Patriots play five games on short weeks, which doesn’t exactly bode well. The Eagles are the only other team with a similar fate, per ESPN.

The abbreviated breaks will occur between Weeks 4 and 5, Weeks 7 and 8, Weeks 11 and 12, Weeks 14 and 15 and Weeks 15 and 16.

There also is a possibility for the Patriots to deal with a sixth short week, with the season finale against Buffalo set to be played either Saturday or Sunday.

*** The Jets start the season by playing every team in the AFC North over the first four weeks. The Ravens, meanwhile, start out with four straight against the AFC East.

*** The Patriots, along with the Buccaneers and Colts, are the only teams who have to start the season with two straight road games.

Pats PR staff wins award

Stacey James, Vice President of Media Relations at New England Patriots, was admittedly a little nervous when team owner Robert Kraft unexpectedly jumped in on a scheduled video call for the media with Nelson Agholor on Tuesday.

James wasn’t sure what was going on.

Kraft, however, had some good news he wanted to share with his PR chief.

Kraft informed James that the Pro Football Writers of America had named the Patriots’ Communication staff as winners of the 2022 Pete Rozelle Award, which is annually given to the staff that “consistently strives for excellence in its dealings and relationships with the media.”

“So well deserved, and I know better than anyone what you’ve gone through over the years,” Kraft said to James during the call. “You really deserve this award.”

TRIPLE THREAT: Pats owner Robert Kraft, team president Jonathan Kraft and vice president of media relations Stacey James attend the league meetings in 2013.

James and his staff had been a finalist for the award seven times, including the past three seasons. It’s the first time the Patriots earned the honor.

Before leaving the session, Kraft called James “the ultimate mensch.”

As someone who has dealt with James, Aaron Salkin, Stephanie Burnham, Michael Jurovaty, and numerous others on the Patriots staff through the years, the group has always done its best to accommodate and assist the media.

Their work in providing players the past few years during COVID-19, especially with all the restrictions, was unmatched across the league.

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