New England Patriots rookie tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene can look to Travis Kelce as inspiration as they watch Super Bowl LV.
Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro tight end who will try to win his second straight Super Bowl on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was in a similar position as Asiasi and Keene as he headed into his second NFL season. Kelce, a 2013 third-round pick, suffered a knee injury during his rookie preseason, never fully recovered from it, played one game and didn’t register any statistics before being placed on injured reserve in October. It was largely a lost season.
And guess what? He was fine from it.
Asiasi and Keene, both 2020 third-round picks, also dealt with setbacks during their rookie seasons. Asiasi caught two passes on seven targets for 39 yards with a touchdown and a drop in nine games with a stint on IR. Keene also spent time on IR and caught three passes on five targets for 16 yards with a fumble.
It would be unfair to expect Asiasi or Keene to become Kelce just because they also were third-round picks who lacked production as rookies. Kelce is the current best tight end in the NFL. It would also be unfair to write off Asiasi and Keene because they struggled as rookies.
“He did a great job getting his body ready for that year and subsequent years since,” Chiefs tight ends coach Tom Melvin said this week when asked how Kelce made a massive second-year leap. “He has a very good feel for playing the game and where he needs to get himself prepared for each year.”
Kelce has put together five straight 1,000-yard seasons. He had his most productive year in 2020, catching 105 passes for 1,416 yards with 11 touchdowns. After being blanked as a rookie, Kelce caught 67 passes for 862 yards with five scores in his second season.
Kelce, Asiasi and Keene are not alone for their lack of output as rookie tight ends.
In the last 10 years, only 14 tight ends have gained over 400 receiving yards in their rookie seasons, just seven, Evan Engram, Tim Wright, Noah Fant, Mark Andrews, Dwayne Allen, George Kittle and Chris Herndon, have registered over 500 yards, and only Engram (722 yards) went over 600 yards. In that same period of time, 97 wide receivers gained over 400 yards in their rookie seasons, 77 of them had over 500 yards, 54 had over 600 yards and 34 had more than Fant’s 722 yards.
Cole Kmet led rookie tight ends with just 28 catches for 243 yards last season. Harrison Bryant led the way with three touchdowns. Adam Trautman and Albert Okwuegbunam were the only other rookie tight ends with over 100 receiving yards.
“Travis, as a second-year player, could not do what he?s doing now,” Melvin said. “We ask an awful lot of him now that nobody could handle. We load them up and find out how much they can and then back off a little bit so they can play full speed. And that?s kind of, as a coach, you need to regulate when it is so they can still perform at their peak every play.”
Tight end is one of the trickier positions to learn because so much goes into it. To gain playing time, a tight end must not only learn to block like an offensive lineman but catch like a receiver. And to get on the field, they have to be trusted to do both. Rookie tight ends had a higher level of expectations in New England because both Rob Gronkowski, who will play against Kelce on the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, and Aaron Hernandez had over 500 yards as first-year players in 2010. But that type of season is an anomaly in the NFL.
A second-year breakout is not unusual for tight ends, however. Over the last 10 years, 33 tight ends have gained over 500 receiving yards in their second seasons. Kittle, Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham all had over 1,300 yards in Year 2.
The Patriots are in a precarious situation as they begin planning for the 2021 season. They desperately need more production out of their tight ends. After years of getting elite play out of players like Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, Patriots tight ends have gained less than 450 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo and Eric Tomlinson combined for 417 yards in 2019. Izzo, Asiasi and Keene combined for 254 yards this season. So, do the Patriots hope that one or both of Asiasi and Keene take that second-year leap in 2021, or do they spend draft capital or cap space to upgrade the position with Kyle Pitts, Pat Freiermuth, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith or Gerald Everett?
Most rookie tight ends struggle to produce. Not all second-year tight ends take that second-year leap. Since 2010, 28 of 50 tight ends taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft have gained over 400 yards in their first or second seasons. For some players, like Everett, Smith, Hayden Hurst, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Fiedorowicz, it took until Year 3 to hit that threshold, and many never have.
Out of 23 tight ends taken in the third round since 2010, 12 have gained over 400 yards in their first or second seasons.
Still, if there’s a better than 50-percent chance that Keene and Asiasi could have over 400 yards receiving next season, then maybe the Patriots don’t need to add at the position until they see another year out of the two 2020 draft picks. There’s a good chance that one of those two players will be productive next season based on odds alone. So, the Patriots could decide to save their draft capital or cap space and spend it on other positions of need like quarterback, wide receiver or the defensive front seven and see if Asiasi or Keene can make that second-year leap.
It’s too early to write them off yet. Just look at how Kelce started his career.