April 24, 2018 marked a new dawn for the New England Patriots’ tight end group.
After investing minimal draft capital in the position for the better part of a decade — and having that bite them in the backside in Year 1 of the post-Rob Gronkowski era — the Patriots twice traded up to grab tight ends in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft: UCLA’s Devin Asiasi at No. 91 overall and Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene at No. 101.
The relentless Keene has garnered more post-draft attention thanks to his hair-on-fire play style, catchy “Rambo” nickname and eye-popping athletic profile, plus the fact New England swung an unprecedented trade to land him. But Asiasi has a better chance of making an immediate impact in the Patriots’ offense.
Let’s take a closer look at the 6-foot-3, 257-pound tight end’s game:
— Asiasi didn’t blow up the NFL Scouting Combine the way Keene did, but he moves very well for a player his size, both during his routes and after the catch.
Check out this one reception from last year’s rivalry game against USC. Asiasi lines up in-line to the left, quickly creates separation from a linebacker on a quick slant, gets one block and then outruns the ‘backer and a safety for a 53-yard touchdown.
Asiasi almost looks like a jumbo wide receiver at times. Notice the cut he makes out of his break on this 23-yard pickup against Oklahoma:
And this one against Cal, which causes safety Ashtyn Davis (a third-round draft pick of the New York Jets) to lose his footing:
Sure hands are another Asiasi attribute. He dropped just one pass last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and showed great concentration on catches in traffic, like this one against Washington State:
And this one against Cal that moved the chains on fourth-and-9:
— Asiasi caught 44 passes for 641 yards and four touchdowns in 2019, ranking 11th among FBS tight ends in yards per reception (14.6). Among draft-eligible FBS tight ends, only Washington’s Hunter Bryant and Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant averaged more yards per catch.
Unlike both Bryants — lighter “move” tight ends who don’t fit the Patriots’ prototype — Asiasi has significant experience as a traditional “Y.”
Though he logged snaps in the slot, out wide, on the wing and in the backfield for a UCLA offense that deployed as many as four tight ends at a time, the bulk of Asiasi’s playing time came as an in-line tight end, which should simplify his transition to New England. (Keene primarily played as an H-back in college and was a running back in high school, meaning he’ll need to learn a new position as he integrates into the Patriots’ offense.)
— As a blocker, Asiasi won’t be mistaken for Gronkowski and could struggle to push defensive linemen, but he acquitted himself reasonably well against linebackers and defensive backs, especially in space. He’s skilled at angling his blocks to direct defenders away from the ball-carriers, which helps offset his lack of point-of-attack power.
— Given the way Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo performed last season and the learning curve Keene will need to overcome, Asiasi has a realistic chance of beginning the 2020 season as the Patriots’ No. 1 tight end. Evaluating the 22-year-old still requires some projection, though.
Why? Because Asiasi was a non-factor for his first three collegiate seasons. He left Michigan — where he briefly roomed with fellow Patriots draft pick Josh Uche — after a two-catch freshman year, sat out the 2017 season due to transfer rules and caught just six passes for the Bruins in 2018.
Even after Asiasi finally became a full-time starter and regular contributor last season, it took months for his production to truly pop. After catching four or fewer passes in each of his first 31 appearances, he closed out his collegiate career by catching five for 72 yards against Utah, five for 141 and a touchdown against USC and eight for 99 against Cal.
Over those final three games, Asiasi tallied 34.6 percent of his career catches (18 of 52) and 39.5 percent of his receiving yards (312 of 789). The Patriots are hoping he picks up where he left off.