As the NFL calendar officially flips to 2021, we?re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots? roster. We?ll examine which players stood out in 2020, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town. Next up: tight end.
Matt LaCosse (opt-out)
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
2020 SEASON REVIEW
In 2019, the first year after Rob Gronkowski entered his temporary retirement, Patriots tight ends ranked dead last in the NFL in receptions, catching 37 for 419 yards and two touchdowns.
New England sought to remedy that by trading up for two tight ends in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, but those moves did not yield immediate results.
The Patriots again ranked last in the NFL in receptions by tight ends in 2020, this time totaling just 18 catches for 254 yards and one score. Nearly 20 percent of those yards came on one play: a 50-yard Hail Mary to Izzo in Week 11 that came up well short of the end zone.
Rookies Keene and Asiasi were nonfactors. The former tallied three receptions on five targets for 16 yards in 140 snaps. The latter was held without a catch until Week 17, finishing the season with two on nine targets for 39 yards and one touchdown over 213 snaps.
A combination of injuries, healthy scratches and excused personal absences also caused the two third-rounders to miss 17 games between them. Asiasi played in nine, while Keene was active for six. Both spent time on injured reserve.
Neither could unseat Izzo, who started every game until an injury ended his season in early December. The 2018 seventh-round pick was serviceable but provided little in the passing game, finishing with 13 catches for 199 yards (including the aforementioned Hail Mary) and no touchdowns.
LaCosse, who was ahead of Izzo on the depth chart throughout the 2019 campaign, was one of eight Patriots players to opt out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Fifty individual NFL tight ends caught more passes in 2020 than the Patriots’ entire position group.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Can Asiasi and Keene improve in Year 2? Historically, tight end has been one of the more difficult positions for NFL rookies to master. Of the 55 tight ends drafted in the first three rounds from 2009 to 2019, just 12 tallied more than 400 receiving yards in their first season, with six surpassing 500. Twenty-eight of those players reached 400 yards in Year 2, with 23 topping 500 and two cracking 1,000 (Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, both in 2011).
Granted, Asiasi and Keene were among the least productive rookie tight ends of the past decade, but they also didn’t have the benefit of a typical offseason or preseason, and both dealt with in-season setbacks. Chicago’s Cole Kmet led all first-year tight ends this season with a modest 28 catches for 243 yards and two scores.
None of this means the Patriots’ draftees are guaranteed to break out in 2021. But it also means it’s far too early to label them as busts. That being said …
2. What moves will the Patriots make in free agency? New England cannot bank on Asiasi and Keene becoming starting-caliber players, and it cannot expect its offense to rebound if it continues to receive nothing from the tight end position. Getting LaCosse back would give that unit a slight boost, but his 2019 numbers (13-131-1) were worse than Izzo’s in 2020. Both veterans should be on the roster bubble this summer.
With around $60 million in projected salary cap space to patch their various roster holes, the Patriots should prioritize adding at least one proven, experienced tight end in free agency. Hunter Henry — whom Bill Belichick fawned over this season — is the best available option. If he’s too pricey or is hit with the franchise tag, the Patriots could shift their focus to Gerald Everett, Jonnu Smith or Jared Cook.
Other veteran tight ends — including Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz and Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate — could be traded or cut as cap-strapped teams make moves to shed salary.
3. Draft options. The Patriots shouldn’t look to repair their tight end room solely through the draft — remember, rookies there often take a year or two to develop — but this year’s crop does include some intriguing prospects.
Florida standout Kyle Pitts likely will be gone by the time New England picks at No. 15, but Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth — a Merrimac, Mass., native nicknamed “Baby Gronk” — is a possibility on Day 2. Hunter Long put up big numbers at Boston College and should go sometime in the middle rounds. And if you’re looking for a late-round sleeper, we liked what we saw from Boise State’s John Bates in Senior Bowl practice.