For years and years, the New England Patriots seemingly plugged their ears, closed their eyes and pretended Rob Gronkowski was going to play forever despite his late-career hints at retirement. Then he actually made good on his intimations, and the Patriots had to scramble for tight end help last offseason.
One year after subjecting fans to Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson, Ryan Izzo and Eric Tomlinson manning the Patriots? tight end position, Bill Belichick selected Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
If all goes as planned, either Asiasi or Keene will emerge as a starter in the Patriots? offense by the end of 2020. Izzo might begin the season atop the tight end depth chart, but the Patriots have to hope his reign won?t last long.
So, what can the Patriots reasonably expect from Asiasi and Keene in Year 1?
The best place to start finding an answer would seem to be the 2010 NFL Draft when the Patriots selected Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round.
Gronkowski as a rookie: 42 catches, 546 yards, 10 touchdowns
Hernandez as a rookie: 45 catches, 563 yards, six touchdowns; three carries 47 yards
Of course, those are probably unfair comparisons to make for Asiasi and Keene. Gronkowski should be a future Pro Football Hall of Famer and Hernandez was an NFL Top 100 player before his arrest and murder conviction.
Here are the rest of the Patriots? rookie tight end seasons since 2000:
Daniel Graham, 2002: 15 catches 150 yards, TD
Ben Watson, 2004: two catches 16 yards
David Thomas, 2006: 11 catches, 159 yards, TD
Jacob Hollister, 2017: four catches, 42 yards
Graham and Watson were first-round selections, Thomas was a third-round pick, like Asiasi and Keene, and Hollister was an undrafted free agent. Watson only played one game as a rookie.
So, drafted rookie Patriots tight ends, excluding Watson, have averaged 28 catches for 355 yards with 4.5 touchdowns. That seems like a reasonable statline if a rookie tight end emerges as a starter.
But let?s take a look at all rookie tight ends drafted since 2010 who played at least nine games. Those 93 players averaged 19 catches for 207 yards with 1.7 touchdowns.
Narrowing our focus down to rookie tight ends drafted between the second and fourth rounds in that same timespan sends out an averaged stat line of 21 catches for 233 yards with two touchdowns.
Rookie tight ends drafted in the third round from 2010 to 2019 averaged 22 catches for 270 yards with two touchdowns.
The most productive third-round rookie tight end since 2010 was Tony Moeaki of the Kansas City Chiefs, who caught 47 passes for 556 yards with three touchdowns. Jimmy Graham also caught five touchdowns in 2010 as a member of the New Orleans Saints.
That was quite a year for rookie tight ends.
As for more recent examples of third-round rookie tight ends:
Mark Andrews, 2018, Baltimore Ravens: 34 catches, 552 yards, three touchdowns
Dawson Knox, 2019, Buffalo Bills: 28 catches, 388 yards, two touchdowns
Two other players worth noting while writing about rookie tight ends are Evan Engram, taken in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, and Tim Wright, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers undrafted free agent in 2013. Engram had the most productive season by a rookie tight end since 2010; Wright had the most productive season by a rookie tight end taken after the first round since 2010.
Engram: 64 catches, 722 yards, six TDs
Wright: 54 catches, 571 yards, five TDs
Hernandez, meanwhile, was the third-most productive.
The Patriots don’t have a strong receiver corps behind No. 1 wideout Julian Edelman, but third-down back James White should see a considerable amount of targets out of the backfield from quarterback Cam Newton. Newton, by the way, has heavily targeted tight ends (when their name is Greg Olsen) throughout his playing career.
Here are some notable seasons by Newton’s tight ends:
Olsen, 2011: 45 catches, 540 yards, five TDs
Jeremy Shockey, 2011: 37 catches, 455 yards, four TDs
Olsen, 2012: 69 catches, 843 yards, five TDs
Olsen, 2013: 73 catches, 816 yards, six TDs
Olsen, 2014: 84 catches, 1,008 yards, six TDs
Olsen, 2015: 77 catches, 1,104 yards, seven TDs
Olsen, 2016: 80 catches, 1,073 yards, three TDs
Olsen, 2017: 17 catches, 191 yards, TD (seven games)
Ed Dickson, 2017: 30 catches, 437 yards, TD
Olsen, 2018: 27 catches, 291 yards, four TDs (nine games)
Ian Thomas, 2018: 36 catches, 333 yards, two TDs
Thomas was a rookie, drafted early in the fourth round, in 2018.
So, the highest ceiling for Asiasi or Keene is probably Hernandez?s 2010 season: around 40 catches for upwards of 500 yards with six touchdowns. Anything more than that is unforeseen but clearly would be welcome for New England.
The floor is no production whatsoever.
A reasonable middle-ground expectation would be similar to Ian Thomas’s 2018 season: around 30 catches for 300 yards, splitting the difference between the averaged NFL third-round pick and Patriots rookie tight end.
Patriots tight ends caught just 37 passes for 418 yards with two touchdowns in 2019. Watson led the way with 17 catches for 173 yards. Asiasi or Keene should be able to beat that in 2020.
Photo via New England Patriots