What Can Patriots Expect From Their New-Look Tight End Group?

The Patriots added three new tight ends this week


Nov 13, 2020

The New England Patriots’ tight end group underwent a makeover this week.

With Dalton Keene joining fellow third-round draft pick Devin Asiasi and practice squadder Jake Burt on injured reserve, the Patriots called in reinforcements at the position.

Dylan Cantrell and David Wells signed to the practice squad after free agent tryouts. Jordan Thomas was claimed off waivers from the Arizona Cardinals.

Thomas needs to complete his battery of COVID-19 tests before he can practice or play, so he’s unlikely to suit up Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens. Cantrell or Wells could be elevated to the gameday roster, however, if the Patriots desire additional depth behind Ryan Izzo.

With Asiasi and Keene unavailable, Izzo — who has not been fully healthy, either — has been the Patriots’ only active tight end in each of the team’s last two games, with fullback Jakob Johnson also assuming some of those duties.

“It’s the NFL, and injuries and things like that happen,” Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley said Friday. “We’ve got a flexible group of guys that have honestly worked hard. And we cross-train everybody, so we’re prepared to be able to be flexible and play multiple positions. They’ve really embraced it worked hard to do more and obviously create a bigger role.”

Midseason additions are commonplace in the NFL, but it’s rare for a team to introduce three new players simultaneously into a given position group. Caley was asked whether he needs to simplify things to quickly get these newcomers up to speed.

“That’s a great question,” he replied. “I would answer it this way: It depends. You want to build a foundation, especially with guys that don’t have exposure to this system. But there’s a lot of carryover. It’s a language. We have our language. The other teams have their language. So it’s understanding English and learning what the word for that is in Spanish, etc. So once you understand the terminology, once you understand the fundamentals, then you can start to see some growth at a fast pace. Then you have guys that come in with some experience in similar systems or with similar terminology.

“So certainly, that growth can be enhanced a little bit or accelerated, I should say. But the biggest thing is, when we get guys in here, what’s their background? What do they know? Let’s get them a foundation. Let’s get them on the field. Let’s get them in a position where they can function quickly and play with confidence.”

Cantrell, who boasts an intriguing athletic profile, has yet to appear in a regular-season game since the Los Angeles Chargers drafted him in the sixth round in 2018. Nor has Wells, a 2018 UDFA who’s spent time with the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs.

Thomas, another 2018 sixth-rounder, does have some NFL experience. He played in all 16 games for the Houston Texans as a rookie, catching 20 passes on 27 targets for 2015 yards and four touchdowns. The Mississippi State product appeared in five games for Houston in 2019 (one catch, 8 yards) and four for Arizona this season (one catch, 3 yards) before being waived.

At 6-foot-5, 277 pounds, Thomas also brings some extra heft to New England’s tight end room, outweighing Izzo, Asiasi and Keene by roughly 20 pounds.

“He’s a big kid, has a wide body,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Friday morning. “But pretty athletic, so he may be able to do some other things, as well. We’ll see how it goes when we get him. He’s been in a system similar to ours (with the Texans), so we’ll see how quickly that comes along.”

Patriots tight ends have combined for just 10 receptions this season (nine by Izzo), the fewest of any team in the NFL. New England also ranked last in that category last season as Izzo, Matt LaCosse and Ben Watson struggled to adequately replace Rob Gronkowski.

Asiasi, who has yet to be targeted in five NFL appearances, must sit out at least two more games before he can return from IR. Keene (one game, one target, one catch, 8 yards) must miss at least the next three.

Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images
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