It’s easy to focus on the big school players when we talk about running backs. They get the most coverage on TV and they’re usually surrounded by other NFL caliber players. Teams, however, are learning that talented prospects can come from all over the country and concentrating on the powerhouse programs can let some good players slip through the cracks.
Case in point, South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr. has averaged over 7 yards per carry on 630 runs, with 40 touchdowns, over the course of his four-year career. That isn’t simply a matter of a few big plays here and there, but a consistently good runner producing consistently.
The New York Giants could be in the market for a running back, and their plethora of needs likely means they won’t be looking for one early in the draft. Could Strong be a good value for the Giants if he slips to the third day of the draft?
Prospect: Pierre Strong Jr. (20)
Games Watched: vs. North Dakota State (spring, 2021), vs. Delaware (spring, 2021), vs. Northern Iowa (spring, 2021), vs. Sam Houston (2021)
Games Played: 36
Yards (YPC): 4,495 (7.1 per carry)
Yards (YPC): 600 (9.5 per catch)
Total Touchdowns (rushing/receiving): 43 (40 rushing, 3 receiving)
Games Played : 11
Yards (YPC): 1,673 (7.0 per carry)
Yards (YPC): 150 (6.8 per catch)
Total Touchdowns: 18 (all rushing)
Best: Speed, size, vision, burst, hands, zone running
Worst: Receiving experience, man-gap running
Projection: An important rotational back for a team that uses zone blocking schemes.
South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr. has a good combination of athleticism, versatility, contact balance, and vision for the NFL game.
Strong is a very experienced runner with nearly 700 touches over his four-year career at SDSU. He has consistently produced at a high level, averaging 7.1 yards per carry over his career and 7.0 yards per carry for his senior season. Strong typically aligned next to the quarterback out of the shotgun set in SDSU’s spread offense.
Strong has good patience behind the line of scrimmage and does a good job of following his blockers, allowing them to establish their blocks before pressing the line of scrimmage. He is an explosive athlete and shows a good burst through holes, with good contact balance to survive shoulder checks and arm tackles around the line of scrimmage.
Strong has very good vision, allowing him to easily track defenders at the first level, anticipate defenders at the second level, and quickly identify cutback lanes. Those traits, combined with his burst, speed, and quickness allow Strong to thrive in zone blocking schemes.
Strong also likely has untapped upside as a pass catcher at the NFL level. He was mostly used as a check-down option for SDSU’s quarterback, and was seldom a down-field receiver. However, he showed good hands catching the ball, presenting a clear target for his quarterback, framing the pass well, and generally plucking the ball out of the air. He does not yet run a complete route tree, but he appears comfortable enough on check-down passes to believe that he can be developed into a more well-rounded receiver.
Strong also showed good competitive toughness as a runner, fighting for yards after contact or running behind his pads when necessary. Likewise, he was also used as a lead blocker on quarterback runs and was aggressive in taking on linebackers or defensive backs.
The same cannot be said about his pass protection. Strong seems to have a good idea of his role within the blocking schemes, and isn’t exactly an unwilling pass protector. However, he can appear a bit tentative and doesn’t aggressively meet pass rusher, instead seeming to “catch” them.
And while Strong is a very good runner in zone schemes, he doesn’t seem as comfortable in man-gap runs. He doesn’t play quite as fast, nor does he have the same instinctive feel for those plays. It could be that SDSU’s offensive line was just better at zone blocking, but it is worth investigating more for teams.
Overall Grade: 6.9
South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong Jr. projects best as an important rotational player for a team that makes heavy use of zone blocking schemes in its running game.
Strong is a good, dependable runner who has the ability to keep an offense on schedule and moving in the right direction on a down-to-down basis. That said, he also has the speed and explosiveness to be a big-play threat. His 4.37 speed shows up on tape when he finds the open field, and it’s difficult for all but the fastest defenders to catch him.
Strong will likely start his career as a high-ceiling RB3 for most teams, and teams might be hesitant to move him up the depth chart until he becomes more of an asset in the passing game. SDSU simply didn’t use Strong much as a receiver, and he appears a bit unsure as a pass protector.
These things can be coached up, and it would likely behoove his future team to do so.
Strong could be a truly dangerous player if he can become more active in the passing game. His athletic profile suggests that he could be a big-play machine on wheel routes, angle routes, or when flexed to the slot or wide receiver positions. Likewise, becoming a more confident and reliable pass protector will go a long way toward teams trusting him to be on the field for all three downs.