As the calendar flips to June and the (expected) start of Patriots training camp draws closer, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s 90-man roster.
Next up: the tight ends.
POSITION GROUP BREAKDOWN
Roster locks: Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene
Near locks: Matt LaCosse
On the bubble: Ryan Izzo
Long shots: Rashod Berry, Jake Burt
MOST TO PROVE
The Patriots’ decision to trade up for two tight ends on Day 2 of the 2020 NFL Draft (Asiasi at No. 91 overall, Keene at No. 101) likely pushed either LaCosse or Izzo off the 53-man roster. While LaCosse has stronger odds of sticking around, he’ll need to provide more than he did in his first year with the team.
Signed early in free agency last March, LaCosse missed five games with injuries and recorded more than two receptions just once, finishing with 13 catches on 19 targets for 131 yards and one touchdown. In Year 1 of the post-Rob Gronkowski era, LaCosse, Izzo and the now-retired Ben Watson combined for fewer catches, yards and touchdowns than even a past-his-prime Gronkowski managed by himself in 2018.
Asiasi and Keene will be tasked with leading this position group’s renaissance, but a bounce-back year from LaCosse would ease the pressure on the rookies to produce.
It’s unlikely either of the Patriots’ undrafted rookie tight ends (Berry and Burt) will stick around past cutdown day, but Berry is an interesting player simply because we don’t know which position he’ll play. He’s listed as a tight end, but he initially identified himself on social media as a Patriots outside linebacker. Berry did a little bit of both at Ohio State, primarily serving as a blocking tight end but also seeing snaps at defensive end in multiple games last season.
Berry and Burt both received upward of $80,000 guaranteed in their rookie contracts.
BY THE NUMBERS
37: The number of catches New England’s tight ends totaled last season, the lowest mark of any NFL team. Twenty-two tight ends around the league tallied more.
2010: The last time the Patriots selected two tight ends in the same draft (Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez).
15: The combined number of games LaCosse and Izzo missed due to injuries or healthy scratches last season.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Can the new blood revive this unit? The Patriots fielded arguably their weakest tight end group of the Bill Belichick era last season, and their failure to adequately replace Gronkowski had disastrous consequences for their offense.
Their solution: go young.
After passing on all available veterans in free agency (Austin Hooper, Eric Ebron, Tyler Eifert, etc.), New England made aggressive moves for Asiasi and Keene in the third round of the draft. Whether they’ll go on to have the same seismic impact that Gronkowski and Hernandez did in the early 2010s remains to be seen, but both are big, athletic, versatile players with solid blocking chops and playmaking abilities in the passing game.
We’ll see how long it takes both to get acclimated after an offseason with no OTAs and likely no minicamp. Which brings us to …
2. Can Asiasi make an immediate impact? Asiasi had just one year of top-end collegiate production — and didn’t truly find his groove until late last year — but his experience as an in-line tight end in Chip Kelly’s UCLA offense should make for a relatively smooth transition to New England. If he picks things up quickly and LaCosse does not elevate his game, Asiasi has a real chance of landing a starting job in training camp.
Asiasi, who also lined up in the slot, out wide and in the backfield for the Bruins, is a hard man to bring down at 6-foot-3, 257 pounds and moves deceptively well for his size. His 14.6 yards-per-catch average in 2019 ranked third among draft-eligible FBS tight ends, and the two players above him both were more than 10 pounds lighter.
3. Where will Keene play? Keene played all over the field at Virginia Tech, but his primary role was H-back — a position the Patriots do not have in their offense. Or, at least, have not.
The additions of Keene and veteran fullback Danny Vitale (a former college H-back who’s smaller and more athletic than his predecessor, James Develin) suggest Josh McDaniels might be tweaking his scheme to include a position similar to the one Kyle Juszczyk has thrived in with the San Francisco 49ers.
The Patriots have employed an H-back at various points over the last two decades, most notably during Hernandez’s tenure.
Keene is a work in progress — he didn’t top 350 yards in any of his three seasons as a collegiate starter and did much of his damage on screens and other short passes — but his athleticism, tenacity and blocking ability should make him a valuable utility man while he continues to develop. He also played running back in high school and logged 11 carries for the Hokies last year, so a few rushing cameos could be in his future, as well.
Thumbnail photo via Steve Mitchell, Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports