Ryan Clark breaks down why he believes in Bill Belichick’s offensive scheme but doubts him as a playcaller for the Patriots. (1:08)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Strong option: In a perfect Patriots world, veteran James White will recapture the form that made him the NFL’s most productive pass-catching running back before sustaining a serious right hip injury last September. From 2015 to 2020, no running back in the NFL had more receptions (364), receiving yards (3,161) and receiving touchdowns (25).
But White has opened 2022 training camp on the physically unable to perform list, which initially has the Patriots considering other options.
Pierre Strong Jr., the 2022 fourth-round pick from South Dakota State who posted the fastest 40-yard dash time among running backs at the NFL combine (4.37) this year, is one of them.
In an interview with ESPN.com, South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier described a player who appears to be an ideal fit for the role.
As a pass-catcher: “He’s phenomenal. That’s his greatest strength. He has unbelievable hands — very soft. We would like to isolate him on a linebacker and say ‘advantage Pierre.'”
Blitz pickup: “We never worried about him. I think he showed that in the [Shrine] Bowl game, where he blocked FBS All-Stars and stood in there. We work it; it’s not something we take for granted. We go full speed with a linebacker coming right at you [and] you can’t cut him. So Pierre’s courage and ability is right where it needs to be.”
In 48 career games with the Jackrabbits, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, Strong Jr. totaled 62 receptions for 581 yards and three touchdowns.
He might have had increased production if he wasn’t as successful as a pure runner, where his speed and running style in a zone-based scheme helped him amass 4,669 yards on 631 carries (7.2 avg.) and 40 touchdowns.
“His ability to get his legs up in the air is unique, so you’re really trying to tackle one leg if you get to him,” Stiegelmeier said. “He was not a stop-and-try-to-juke-a-guy [runner]. He would do it full speed, in the open field, and to break down and tackle when he’s going full speed is really tough.”
When Stiegelmeier (entering his 26th year) reflected on five seasons of coaching Strong, he said the way it started spoke volumes — a redshirt freshman in 2017, and then deep on the depth chart to begin 2018.
“He kept working hard, we had some injuries, and then the last half of the  season he ended up being our leading rusher,” he said.
“His humility, his ability to be a team player and do what is asked of him and not want more, but prepare for more — that’s not a common trait nowadays. Young men, student-athletes, want it and think they should be getting it. Pierre was patient, humble, and when he got his chance exploded.”
The Patriots have traditionally been patient with rookie passing backs. White hardly played in 2014 after New England selected him in the fourth round, and Shane Vereen played sparingly in 2011 after being tabbed in the second round.
That gave them time to adjust to the demands of blitz pickup — often cited as the No. 1 responsibility to earn the confidence of the coaching staff — and the NFL as a whole.
In 2022, the Patriots have Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson as their top traditional running backs, with Stevenson saying one of his offseason goals was to become more of a factor in the passing game. Thick-legged rookie Kevin Harris (sixth round, South Carolina) adds depth behind them.
Then, in the more traditional passing back role, there’s White, Strong, third-year player J.J. Taylor, and eight-year veteran slash option Ty Montgomery, who was signed as a free agent in March.
“I’ve had a number of people who follow the Patriots say Pierre is a perfect fit for their philosophy in terms of using running backs,” Stiegelmeier said.
2. Training camp: Rookies, quarterbacks and rehabbing players have already reported for Patriots training camp, and the remainder of the roster arrives Tuesday. The team will practice Wednesday-Saturday at 9:30 a.m., and then Monday-Thursday at the same time. At 7 p.m. on Aug. 5, practice is scheduled inside Gillette Stadium for season-ticket members and Foxborough residents.
3. Belichick & Seymour: With Aug. 6 a day off at Patriots training camp, it’s ideal timing for coach Bill Belichick. That’s when Richard Seymour is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (noon ET, ESPN), slotted third in the speech order, and Belichick is now freed up to travel to Canton, Ohio.
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4. Parker’s No. 1: Receiver DeVante Parker wore No. 1 at Ballard High School in Louisville, Kentucky, and that explains his motivation to switch from 11 to 1 in his first season with the Patriots. It’s a return to his roots. The number became available when N’Keal Harry was traded to the Bears on July 12.
5. Strong’s calves: One thing that surprised Stiegelmeier when it came to NFL teams scouting Strong: “A huge majority of them wondered about his legs, because he had very skinny calves. They thought he looked more like a cross-country runner. To me, it’s more about the heart, not the legs, chest or arms … I was amazed at how much stock they put into how a guy looks. I think that’s part of the thorough evaluation in the NFL.”
6. Thornton’s wrists: Between Strong’s calves and second-round pick Tyquan Thornton‘s wrists that measured 6 1/8 (skinniest of any receiver), it will be notable to see if those measurements play a factor in each player’s development. Thornton, a receiver from Baylor, seemed genuinely surprised it was an issue, saying in the spring, “Skinny wrists? I mean, what are you using your wrists for? That was new to me.”
7. MVP Mac? ESPN NFL analyst Mike Tannenbaum is bullish on Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, making him his “sneaky MVP” pick during an appearance on Get Up last week. Patriots followers should hope Tannenbaum is as prescient as he was about Justin Herbert entering the 2019 draft, as he had consistently touted him over Tua Tagovailoa when that wasn’t a majority opinion.
8. UDFA streak: The Patriots have had an undrafted free agent make the opening-day roster each of the past 18 seasons, the third-longest streak in the NFL behind the Chargers and Colts. Of the five UDFA’s on the 2022 roster, here is one view of the likeliest candidates to keep the streak alive:
C Kody Russey
ST Brendan Schooler
DL LaBryan Ray
OLB DaMarcus Mitchell
P Jake Julien
9. Hines vs. Stueber: Patriots rookie offensive linemen Chasen Hines (sixth round, LSU) and Andrew Stueber (seventh round, Michigan) have opened training camp on the active/non-football injury list, but they appear to be in different categories of recovery. Hines is working out on the field, while Stueber isn’t, which would seem to reflect he’s further away from a potential return.
10. Did you know? The Patriots play two opponents in 2022 whose head coaches were drafted by New England: Kliff Kingsbury (sixth round, 2002) at Arizona (Dec. 12) and Kevin O’Connell (third round, 2008) at Minnesota (Nov. 24). The last team to face two drafted players as a head coach was Chicago in 2014 (Jim Harbaugh, Ron Rivera).