Pierre Strong

Browns “Pleased” With Current RB Group

The Browns have made a handful of moves to account for Nick Chubb‘s season-ending injury, but that hasn’t stopped the organization from being mentioned as a potential suitor for any RBs who have been or could be made available. When asked specifically if the Browns would consider making a move for disgruntled Colts star Jonathan Taylor, GM Andrew Berry hinted that he’s content with his current running back corps.

“Because of the tampering rules, I know I can’t touch on specific players,” Berry said yesterday (h/t Scott Petrak of The Chronicle-Telegram). “We’re always active seekers, participants in the trade market, but I would say we’re pleased with the running back room.”

Jerome Ford topped 100 yards while filling in for an injured Chubb in Week 2, but since he’s entered the starting lineup, he’s put up two lackluster performances. Between the two games, Ford has been limited to 96 yards from scrimmage on 26 touches, although he did find the end zone twice in Week 3.

The team re-signed Kareem Hunt once Chubb went down, and the veteran has garnered the second-most snaps at the position for Cleveland over the past two weeks. However, the veteran RB has also struggled with a 3.9-yards-per-touch mark. Of course, Hunt could also still be finding his groove after waiting until the regular season to sign a deal.

Third-stringer Pierre Strong has put up the best numbers of the bunch, with the second-year pro averaging 5.9 yards on his 13 touches. The former Patriots fourth-round pick has served as the clear RB3 behind Ford and Hunt, and his upside could be a reason why the Browns aren’t in any rush to add reinforcement at the position.

Besides signing Hunt, the Browns also added one of Taylor’s former teammates to the practice squad. Deon Jackson started Week 1 for the Colts but was limited to only 14 rushing yards on 13 attempts. The former UDFA looked serviceable in 2022, finishing with 445 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. For the time being, he’s sitting fourth in the pecking order in Cleveland.

As Berry indicated, the Browns wouldn’t shy away from a no-brainer trade, and plenty could change between now and the October 31 trade deadline. For the time being, it sounds like the Browns will be sticking with their current running backs grouping.

RB Jerome Ford To Start In Cleveland Over Kareem Hunt

The Browns had operated with a one-two punch at running back for the past few years in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and, after Chubb’s season-ending knee injury, the two will share a position room, once again. Cleveland brought Hunt back into the fold after a six-month stay on the free agent market, hoping that he can assist the team in replacing some of Chubb’s lost production. That being said, head coach Kevin Stefanski is adamant that second-year back Jerome Ford will be the Browns’ starter moving forward, according to Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com.

Ford, a fifth-round pick last year out of Cincinnati, surpassed his rookie year yardage total in the first game of his sophomore season, showcasing his increased role in Hunt’s absence. When Chubb went down midway through the team’s loss to the Steelers last week, Stefanski and company turned to Ford. Ford delivered, utilizing a 69-yard rush late in the game to avoid an otherwise pedestrian performance and ending up with 106 rushing yards in the loss. Pierre Strong, drafted a round before Ford last year by the Patriots, took RB2 duties but only had two touches.

“Jerome is the lead back,” Stefanski told reporters yesterday, “but we have to work through all of those types of things and what Kareem’s ready to do this week if he’s ready to go this week, and what type of load he can carry and Pierre Strong’s role. So, I think we need to work through all of that, but yes, Jerome is the starter.”

Stefanski later informed reporters that Hunt will be available to play this Sunday, according to ESPN’s Jake Trotter, meaning the team intends to figure out how much Hunt can handle this weekend. While the team reportedly explored other running back options like then-Rams rusher Cam Akers, Hunt’s familiarity with Cleveland and his ability to work his way back into the offense fairly easily was a major factor in his signing.

A source had told Cabot that Hunt is down 10 pounds from his playing weight in 2022. His apparent loss of explosiveness last year was one of the reasons the Browns allowed him to walk, so perhaps he’s leaned up in an effort to gain back another step.

While his familiarity allowed him to slip back into the Browns’ offense, Hunt still has some things to learn before he becomes a regular contributor once again. He may end up eventually taking a lead role in the team’s offense if he can outperform Ford, but for now, he’ll fall back into the RB2 role he held behind Chubb for the past four years.

Browns Acquire Pierre Strong From Patriots

The Browns and Patriots have swung a trade that will allow both clubs to reinforce position groups that feature injury concerns. As Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports, Cleveland is acquiring running back Pierre Strong and is sending offensive tackle Tyrone Wheatley Jr.  to New England.

Strong was selected by the Pats in the fourth round of the 2022 draft, and he earned just 10 carries in his rookie season. Thanks largely to a 44-yard scamper in a Week 13 victory over the Cardinals, Strong turned those carries into 100 rushing yards, and he added seven catches for 42 yards.

However, as Mike Giardi of the Boston Sports Journal notes, Strong has generally failed to impress the Patriots’ coaching staff, which was evidenced by the fact that the club was actively seeking a veteran complement to RB1 Rhamondre Stevenson this summer. Of course, New England ultimately signed longtime Cowboys standout Ezekiel Elliott, which made Strong expendable.

The Browns, meanwhile, allowed Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson to depart in free agency, as they were comfortable with their own second-year back, Jerome Ford, serving as the primary backup to four-time Pro Bowler Nick Chubb. Unfortunately, Ford is dealing with a hamstring ailment that has jeopardized his Week 1 availability, and even if Ford were healthy, Cleveland could stand to supplement an RB room that includes unproven or uninspiring options like Demetric Felton, Jordan Wilkins, and Hassan Hall. As Tony Grossi of TheLandOnDemand.com posits, Wilkins’ two fumbles in the Browns’ preseason loss to the Chiefs yesterday likely cost him his roster spot.

What Cleveland lacked in RB depth, it made up for in OT talent. With Jedrick Wills, Jack Conklin, James Hudson III, and fourth-round rookie Dawand Jones in the fold, Wheatley — who spent most of the 2022 campaign on the Browns’ taxi squad — was unlikely to have a place on the 53-man roster. He did, however, play well in an extended look during this year’s preseason slate, and though he has yet to see any regular season work in the NFL, he is an ascending player that can serve as needed depth in Foxborough.

As Mike Reiss of ESPN.com writes, presumptive right tackle Riley Reiff left New England’s preseason loss to the Titans on Friday with a right leg injury that could linger into the regular season, and swing tackle Calvin Anderson is presently on the NFI list. Anderson is reportedly close to a return to the active roster, though there is still plenty of room for a tackle with Wheatley’s upside.

Patriots Work Out RB Leonard Fournette, Darrell Henderson

3:56pm: Darrell Henderson also took part in this workout, Pelissero adds (on Twitter). The former Ram’s market has been just as quiet as Fournette’s this offseason. The Jaguars waived Henderson shortly after claiming him late last year. Henderson does have two 600-plus-yard rushing seasons on his resume and operated as the Rams’ starting back for much of their Super Bowl LVI-winning season.

But the former third-round pick is coming off a down contract year, one in which he gained just 385 scrimmage yards and did not see action after being claimed by the Jags.

11:54am: The Patriots met with Leonard Fournette during his 2022 free agency stay. Nearly 18 months later, the sides will huddle up again. Fournette is set to work out for the Pats on Wednesday, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com tweets.

New England has been kicking the tires on running back depth, per the Boston Herald’s Doug Kyed, and has been in the Dalvin Cook mix for a bit now. Fournette’s market is not expected to reach the Cook level, opening the door to a lower-cost Pats addition at the position.

Fournette, 28, met with the Patriots in March 2022 but ended up back with the Buccaneers on a three-year, $21MM deal. Fournette and the Bucs mutually parted ways in March of this year, but not much has come out regarding the former top-five pick’s market since. Fournette joins the likes of Cook, Ezekiel Elliott and Kareem Hunt as notable RBs in free agency.

A former No. 4 overall Jaguars pick, Fournette served as the centerpiece of an offense that faced the Patriots in the 2017 AFC championship game. Three years later, Fournette came on late to make major contributions in the Bucs’ Super Bowl LV-winning season. Tampa Bay rewarded Fournette with contracts in 2021 and ’22. The latter deal included $12MM guaranteed. That contract was in line with what the Cardinals gave James Conner last spring, but this offseason brought a market crash at running back. This market sits in a strange place after numerous cost-cutting measures — and Monday’s lack of extensions for three franchise-tagged players — reduced the position’s standing further.

Adding Fournette would seemingly remove the Pats from the Cook market. It is worth wondering if recent events will impact Cook offers as well. But Fournette will be in Foxborough today, exploring a possible partnership with a third NFL team.

The Bucs ranked last in rushing in 2022; Fournette’s yards per carry dropped by a full yard. The LSU product had averaged 4.5 per tote in 2021, but as just about everything on the Bucs’ offense worsened last year, the team’s starting back averaged a 3.5 yards per handoff. Fournette totaled 1,191 scrimmage yards, however, contributing a career-high 523 through the air. Earning the “Playoff Lenny” alias for his work during the Bucs’ Super Bowl march, Fournette finished with 448 scrimmage yards in the team’s four 2020 playoff games. Prior to a hamstring injury that shut Fournette down in Week 15 of the 2021 season, he totaled 1,266 scrimmage yards as the Bucs’ lead back.

Rhamondre Stevenson resides as the Pats’ starter, with Kyed adding Pierre Strong has a chance to solidify the No. 2 role. But the team being connected to multiple big-name backs could impede the second-year player’s RB2 quest. Stevenson’s status as the team’s starter, especially after Damien Harris‘ free agency exit, should not be considered in jeopardy at this point. But the team may be set to bring in a proven back to complement him soon.

Pats Notes: Mapu, RB, Ryland, Cunningham

We’ve already written a bit about Patriots third-round pick Marte Mapu out of Sacramento State and his dual ability to play both linebacker and safety, a role he played in college. We had a feeling that the Patriots would see that ability and likely play him in the same role, and it looks like that may be exactly what they’re planning to do. They have him officially listed as a linebacker on their roster, but according to Doug Kyed of A to Z Sports, they have been utilizing him lately to fill the void left by former safety Devin McCourty, who retired back in March.

The Patriots are no strangers to experimenting with young players and moving them around the field. Mapu gives them a perfect opportunity to do just that. At only 216 pounds, Mapu is a bit too light to be a perfect fit at linebacker. In Sacramento, he played mostly an in-between role in the slot before lining up at linebacker in the Senior Bowl. At his first OTA practice in New England, he played linebacker; in the two practices after that, McCourty’s old safety role.

Not only does he feel comfortable playing both roles, but his teammates are also under the impression that the adjustment from FCS to NFL is coming easy to Mapu, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. His flexibility and progression have combined to earn him first-team snaps extremely early in his career, as reported by Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated.

Here are a few more rumors coming out of Foxborough:

  • After releasing James Robinson earlier this week, the Patriots may be looking to add another body to the position room, according to Karen Guregian of MassLive. The team will run with Rhamondre Stevenson as their No. 1 next year, no question, but the names behind him don’t inspire much confidence. Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris, and Ty Montgomery combined for 150 rushing yards last year. Strong and Montgomery are reportedly in the running to compete for a third down back role with Harris potentially slotting in as RB2, but one has to imagine the Patriots are considering their options. Obviously, Dalvin Cook is available, but if they’d like to pursue someone more used to working with another rusher, Kareem Hunt, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, and Kenyan Drake are interesting names to look out for.
  • New England spent two draft picks on specialists this year, drafting Maryland kicker Chad Ryland in the fourth round and Michigan State punter Bryce Baringer in the sixth. Despite demonstrating the commitment to spend draft capital on the two, Guregian asserts that neither is a lock to replace the incumbent specialists, Nick Folk and Corliss Waitman. Guregian expects a heavy competition for both kicking jobs but doesn’t rule out the possibility of the losers of those battles landing on the team’s practice squad.
  • Former Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham was highly sought after when he went undrafted this year. The Patriots landed his talents thanks to a deal that included $200K in guaranteed money. The money might not have been the only factor in Cunningham choosing New England as his professional destination, though. According to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Cunningham told the media that “the Patriots were the only team before the draft to work him out at (wide receiver).” He’s listed as a quarterback on the team’s roster, but perhaps working him out at receiver gave Cunningham the impression that he would have more playing opportunities or a higher chance to make the 53-man roster.

AFC East Notes: Jets, White, Eichenberg

The Jets have moved Mekhi Becton to right tackle, with Robert Saleh citing George Fant‘s athleticism as making him a better blindside fit. Although the second-year Jets HC said Becton is appropriately athletic for the left tackle post, the former first-round pick has faced steady scrutiny regarding his weight. Becton was rumored to be over 400 pounds last year, and Rich Cimini of ESPN.com notes the third-year blocker was thought to be in the 390s as recently as minicamp, when he would not confirm his weight. That said, Cimini adds Becton looks slimmer at Jets training camp. Saleh said the Louisville product has “got himself into football shape.” While Becton would not confirm his training camp weight, he said he hit the goal he targeted. Becton’s listed weight is 363 pounds. Given the rumblings about Jets dissatisfaction with their largest player’s frame at points, this will continue to be an issue to monitor as he transitions to a new position.

Here is the latest from the AFC East:

  • James White signed a fourth Patriots contract this offseason, agreeing to a two-year deal worth $5MM. But the longtime Pats passing-down back is recovering from a September 2021 hip subluxation injury, one that could land him on the reserve/PUP list to start this season. The ninth-year vet was still walking with a noticeable limp barely a week before training camp, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN.com. White signed for only $500K guaranteed, and the Patriots drafted two running backs — Pierre Strong (Round 4) and Kevin Harris (Round 6) — this year. With the team already having Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson locked into roles, Pro Football Focus’ Doug Kyed wonders if White is a release candidate. White led all backs in receiving yardage from 2015-20 (3,161), Reiss points out, but Strong — he of a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, this year’s top running back time — stands to be another option the Pats could use. The Pats slow-played both White and Shane Vereen‘s debuts as passing-down backs, but White’s injury could force the team’s hand.
  • The Dolphins are moving closer to giving Liam Eichenberg another try as a starter. The 2021 second-round pick is the clear frontrunner to be the team’s left guard starter, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald notes. Eichenberg and 2020 fourth-rounder Solomon Kindley are vying for that job, and while pronouncements about O-line battles before padded practices are premature, the Dolphins have more invested in the Notre Dame product. Eichenberg spent more time at left tackle last season, but Terron Armstead will take over there this year.
  • Denzel Mims has been attached to trade/cut rumors for a bit now, and Cimini predicts the Jets will end up trading the former second-round pick before Week 1. Mims delivered a solid offseason, but his lack of a special teams role and clear place out of the Jets’ top three at the position has long made him vulnerable. The Jets have four receivers they figure to look to before Mims, with Garrett Wilson joining a stable of Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and the recently re-signed Braxton Berrios. Despite being the 2020 No. 59 overall pick, Mims (31 career catches for 490 yards) would not fetch much in a deal.
  • The Jets plan to use John Franklin-Myers as a defensive end in base sets and inside on passing downs, with Saleh calling the veteran the team’s Justin Tuck– or Brandon Graham-type D-lineman, per The Athletic’s Connor Hughes (on Twitter). This year will feature a more crowded Jets D-line, with Carl Lawson back and first-rounder Jermaine Johnson in the fold. Franklin-Myers, whom the Jets extended last year, will still have a key role.

NFL Draft Pick Signings: 6/17/22

Here are the latest mid- and late-round picks to sign their four-year rookie contracts:

Cleveland Browns

New England Patriots

  • RB Pierre Strong (fourth round, South Dakota State)

The Browns made York the highest-drafted kicker since 2016 (Roberto Aguayo, Round 2) by selecting him 124th overall. The team was eyeing Evan McPherson in the 2021 draft, and after seeing the Bengals pounce on the talented specialist, the Browns decided to make an early move for York. LSU’s kicker for three seasons, York earned second-team All-America acclaim in 2020. York will be poised to take over Browns kicking duties, which Chase McLaughlin held last season. Cleveland has gone through a number of kickers in the past decade. The team has not featured the same primary kicker in consecutive seasons since Billy Cundiff from 2013-14.

Chosen 127th overall, Strong surpassed 1,000 yards three times during his career at the Division I-FCS program, doing so in each season not interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. He amassed a Division I-FCS-best 1,668 rushing yards last season. Strong will join a Patriots backfield that features Damien Harris, who is going into a contract year, and Rhamondre Stevenson.