By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots have needed to add talent at tight end for a few years now. Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene may have enough of it to produce at a high level one day, but in their rookie seasons they didn’t come close.
It was encouraging to see Asiasi finally make a play and find the end zone when he caught his first career touchdown last Sunday against the Jets. Thankfully, he gave Patriots fans something to cling to as they hope he pans out. Because while it’s far too early to brand either third-round pick a bust, Asiasi and Keene certainly have a ways to go if the Patriots want them to become productive starting tight ends.
Ryan Izzo played the vast majority of snaps at tight end in the first half of the season. It underlined both Izzo’s basic dependability in contrast to the two rookies, and how far behind Asiasi and Keene must have been to be unable to supplant the 2018 seventh-round pick for snaps.
When the Patriots placed Izzo on injured reserve in Week 14, it finally opened the door for Asiasi and Keene to take steps forward. Asiasi appears to be slightly ahead of Keene in his development, based on workload and production. Asiasi’s snaps rose from 23 to 27 to 47 from Weeks 14-16. He played 35 snaps against the Jets and plucked a Cam Newton pass over his shoulder for a nifty catch and a touchdown.
How were they used?
Keene hovered around 30 snaps for most of his rookie year, when he was active. The Patriots showed confidence in his ability to line up in a number of ways and not just as a traditional tight end. It reflected how they may want to go in a new direction at fullback. Keene lined up in place of Jakob Johnson at times, in addition to being an in-line tight end and occasionally splitting out wide. Unfortunately, that versatility and usage didn’t translate to on-field production.
The Patriots showed a little more confidence in Asiasi than Keene as purely a receiver. He was often motioned from inside to outside and vice versa. Keene seldom ran routes that weren’t safe dump-offs or quick outs. Asiasi definitely has more upside than Keene as a pass-catching tight end up the seam. As blockers, both rookies were certainly willing. We’ll see how capable they turn out to be.
If it makes you feel any better, the Bears’ Cole Kmet led all rookie tight ends with just 28 catches and 243 yards. So it’s not like Asiasi and Keene were on an island of misfit tight ends while everyone else played well. But the Patriots certainly needed more out of that whole position, commensurate to how much they played.
What’s the future look like?
It sure looks and feels like Asiasi and Keene will both need a couple of years to marinate before becoming top contributors. So it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad sign if Bill Belichick brought in a legit free-agent signing like Hunter Henry to start for a year or two while the kids develop. He absolutely needs an upgrade over Izzo, anyway.
We’re also coming off arguably the strangest year in NFL history. Not a ton of rookies popped at all. The Patriots’ Michael Onwenu was an outlier (and looks like a stud). Both rookie Patriots tight ends dealt with injuries, and Asiasi additionally had to deal with the tragic loss of a close friend. So it’s important to practice patience with these two particular players, and not to blame Asiasi or Keene for Belichick having to depend on them as rookies during a pandemic.
Asiasi and Keene do have upside, and the former at least finally gave us a flash. But as the calendar turns to 2021, they look closer to projects than high-upside prospects.
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.