By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Dalton Keene has yet to see the field in an NFL game, but the Patriots rookie tight end could be in line to make his debut on Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Keene has been off the injury report all week, after dealing with a neck issue for the first two games of the season. Last week he participated in full on Wednesday and Thursday, and in a limited capacity on Friday. Keene received the “Questionable” tag before being inactive against the Seattle Seahawks.
Now there are no injury-related obstacles standing in the way of Keene’s NFL debut. The Pats have rolled with two active tight ends in the first two weeks. They could use a third to help preserve Ryan Izzo, who has played the most offensive snaps of any skill player with 133 total (97.8 percent). Fellow rookie Devin Asiasi, meanwhile, has played 20 snaps (14.7 percent).
Izzo has shown improvement as both a receiver and blocker. But Keene’s presence would add offensive upside and a Belichickian level of versatility to the lineup. At Virginia Tech, Keene played as a traditional in-line tight end, but also contributed as an H-back and fullback.
“It was awesome that [Virginia Tech] trusted me to do so many different things and I think it says a lot about how I play and as a football player,” Keene said in his introductory call with reporters in April. “That’s why I’m so excited that I got picked up by the Patriots because I think they do so many different things with their tight ends and are really creative there. So, I couldn’t be happier right now with where I ended up.”
The Patriots have run 25 offensive plays with at least two tight ends in their first two games. Against the Seahawks they ran four plays in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), three of them pass plays. It’s a strong indication that the Patriots want to throw out of these sets and get the tight ends more involved as receivers, despite their relative lack of depth and experience at the position.
Keene and Asiasi have already had an opportunity to build personal chemistry, having roomed together at the NFL Combine and spent time with each other in camp. As fate should have it, they could find themselves lining up together for the first time as teammates on Sunday.
“I think we kind of basically created relationships with everybody and just helping each other transition from the college to the professional level,” Asiasi said earlier this month. “So obviously him being in the same unit as me, same room as me, we have a lot more time together and we’re able to help each other out on certain things, and making sure we’re plush on our assignments and things like that, even though we know mistakes are going to happen, and those are the things that you can’t really avoid, but whether it’s to just help each other out on little things and making sure that we’re, we’re all squared away so we can go out there. We know what we’re doing.”
If Keene is ready, he would give offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels an opportunity to get more creative with the tight ends in the passing game. The Patriots offense would certainly benefit from adding more options for Cam Newton, if only to lighten the loads of Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry (23 combined targets against the Seahawks).
Keene and Asiasi’s development will be one of the keys to the Patriots’ gradual offensive improvement over the course of the season, especially if they don’t bring in reinforcements via trade. Sunday could be the start of that.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at firstname.lastname@example.org.