The Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick sent a message on draft weekend by trading up twice in the third round to select tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.
New England’s tight ends, led by journeyman Matt LaCosse and 38-year-old Ben Watson, finished dead-last in receptions (37) and 31st in yards (419) by the position in 2019.
An underwhelming group a year ago finally led Belichick to invest real draft capital at tight end for the first time since the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez double-dip in 2010.
Although it wasn’t a surprise to see the Pats address the position in the draft, the decision to go with Asiasi and Keene over other options available at that point in the process was interesting.
After only one tight end went in the first 90 selections, the Patriots started a run with eight players at the position coming off the board in a span of 45 picks in the third and fourth rounds.
With a cluster of players selected at one position, it suggests the league saw Asiasi, Keene, Adam Trautman, Josiah Deguara, and the rest as mostly equal talents.
Many draftniks, including myself, preferred Trautman and Deguara over New England’s new tandem. But the Pats saw it differently, shocker, and as they should, stuck to their board.
After taking a few weeks to digest the 2020 draft class, the selections of Asiasi and Keene, and the possibilities they present for the Patriots offense are all kinds of intriguing.
Both rookies showed that they have skills that will directly translate into New England’s system while also offering unique abilities that can lead to new productive schemes.
One of the staples of the tight end route tree for the Patriots is the seam route, typically off of play-action, along with an intermediate crosser, which were Gronk’s most prolific routes.
Asiasi routinely ran Patriot-like routes attacking between the numbers and up the seam at UCLA.
And although Keene’s transition will be tougher than Asiasi’s due to the nature of Virginia Tech’s offense, there were flashes of Keene doing Patriot-like things. Still, it’ll be an adjustment, as Belichick noted in his post-draft press conference.
“When you watch Dalton play, you just don’t see a lot of things that we do. The Virginia Tech offense didn’t really translate too much to a New England Patriot offense,” Belichick said.
The Pats also ask a lot of their tight ends as blockers primarily on kick-out blocks, wham blocks, and combination blocks to the second level that spearheads their rushing attack.
Asiasi and Keene both have technique issues to work on, as do most young tight ends, but they have the functional strength, baseline fundamentals, and attitude to hold up as blockers.
Asiasi can take on already created roles and responsibilities in the Patriots’ offense, with Keene not too far behind, from years of installations with Gronk in the fold.
But now the fun begins for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in implementing new schemes that highlight positive qualities of Asiasi and Keene that aren’t already routine play calls.
Let’s discuss some ways the Patriots can take from the past and other successful NFL offenses to make the pairing as successful as possible:
When Patriots fans saw the team double-dip at tight end, many began to make inevitable comparisons to the Gronk and Hernandez duo.
Although fans shouldn’t expect as prolific of a tandem, we can pull from the heavy 12-personnel years of Gronk and Hernandez to see what the Pats might do with their two rookies.
The go-to concept for the Gronk-Hernandez duo was a familiar one: Hoss Y Juke. We mostly see “Hoss Z Juke” with Edelman as the “Z” receiver running the juke series. But due to Hernandez’s unique change of direction skills, the Pats also had this play set up for him to run the juke route with Gronk and Wes Welker running up the seams.
Asiasi and Keene don’t have the same lightning-quick feet as Hernandez, so we might not see HOSS in that vein often. But there are other two-tight end route combinations from the early 2010s that might be useful.
Let’s start with a high-low concept that the Patriots kept around in the post-Hernandez days as well. The two tight ends release on crossing routes at different levels of the defense, setting up prime run after catch opportunities.
As we roll the play, the quarterback reads strong-side linebackers’ drop to see if they fall to the shallow or intermediate crosser. As the linebacker drops underneath Gronk’s route, it leaves Hernandez open underneath and he creates a huge gain from there. One can easily see Keene in similar YAC chances in the future.
Another high-low concept the Patriots could bring back is an abbreviated version of the sail concept that’s an easy read for the quarterback.
In this example, Hernandez is flexed out at the top of the screen. But the Pats also ran the concept with both tight ends on the same side of the formation. The idea is still the same, though, with Gronk running a deep corner route and the fullback high-lowing the boundary defender. The defense backs off into cover-three, and Gronk runs a great route to create separation. One can easily see Asiasi effectively running the flag pattern as Gronk did there.
And to get both rookie tight ends involved in a vertical concept, the Pats might bring out a play that we saw them run successfully for a long gain to Ryan Izzo in Week 5 of the 2019 season.
The Patriots start in a “nub” formation with both tight ends as the furthest players out to the right side of the formation. Both tight ends run vertical routes to flood the deep part of the field.
Here, they pair a skinny post by Gronk with a fade route by Hernandez up the sideline. With the defense in cover-two, the dual vertical releases put the half-field safety in conflict: he can either stay over Gronk or Hernandez, but not both. The safety takes away the middle of the field threat, leaving Hernandez wide open along the sideline for a walk-in touchdown.
Lastly, the Patriots also used Hernandez in the backfield at running back, fullback, and off the line at H-Back as well, something that Keene frequently did at Virginia Tech.
New England’s typical usage for weapons like Keene might not line up exactly with his college days. But there’s another NFL offense that could provide inspiration.
As much as we’d like to see Gronk-Hernandez 2.0, the Asiasi-Keene pairing reminds me of the versatile tandem in San Francisco.
Keene is a cross between All-Pro tight end George Kittle and Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk. He might not blossom into a player on Kittle and Juszczyk’s level, but he has a similar body type and skill set.
To make the transition easier for Keene, Belichick could take from pal Kyle Shanahan and adjust the scheme to Keene in some areas.
The advantage of Keene’s athletic profile and experience is that the Patriots can get into sets with two tight ends on the line or move Keene to off the line or into the backfield at fullback. In other words, they’ll have the flexibility to be in either 12 or 21 personnel without substituting.
As Belichick noted after the draft, the Virginia Tech coaching staff did their best to present Keene with opportunities to run after the catch, his best and most tangible trait on tape.
One way the 49ers get both Kittle and Juszczyk chances to run after the catch is by marrying their running game with a potent play-action passing attack.
Here, the Niners ran a toss sweep with Juszczyk leading as a fullback in the backfield, something that Keene can do as a rookie due to his experience in that role at Virginia Tech. The Niners use short motions before the snap to give Juszczyk a head start and a better angle into his block. Those are little details that the Patriots might not mimic, but it’s brilliant on Shanahan’s part.
Working off of that sweep action, Shanahan builds in play-action concepts using the fullback as a pass-catching threat. On the play above, one of Shanahan’s favorites, the Niners appear to be running a fullback lead play. But instead of making his block on the linebacker, Juszczyk blows by the MIKE on the wheel route for a nice gain.
We also saw Pats free-agent addition Danny Vitale run a similar concept last season with Shanahan disciple Matt LaFleur and the Green Bay Packers.
Along with the wheel route, the 49ers offense thrives off of their bootleg series that feasts on misdirection.
The one advantage that the Pats might have with Stidham at quarterback over Brady is that, as the Niners do with Garoppolo, they can now move the pocket thanks to Stidham’s athleticism.
By rolling Stidham out, they’ll present their first-year starter with easier half-field reads while giving their YAC machines like Keene, N’Keal Harry, or Julian Edelman space to run.
On this play, San Fran put two tight ends on the line of scrimmage instead of having a fullback in the backfield. They then ran an old-school boot concept out of a two-tight end set with Kittle (Keene) running a “slide” route behind the line of scrimmage and tight end Levine Toilolo (Asiasi) running a crossing pattern. With the defense flowing in the opposite direction, it leaves Kittle in space to run after the catch.
Another way the Tech coaching staff got Keene involved in the passing game was on screens either at tight end or in an off the line H-Back role.
The Niners incorporate screens all the time in their offense for Kittle and Juszczyk, and it all builds off of San Francisco’s rushing attack.
New England only threw a screen pass to their tight ends once all last season, according to Sports Info Solutions. But with Keene in the mix, we’ll hopefully see more of an effort to incorporate screens in 2020.
And it helps that Keene can serve as a lead blocker to give the defense run looks before they eventually hit them with a screen pass.
The Patriots got themselves a traditional tight end in Devin Asiasi that can stretch the field and beat underneath coverage with his quickness at the top of routes, making for a smooth transition into their system.
Keene’s skill set is a bit more of a projection with his downfield route-running likely taking some time to develop. But he offers versatility and upside due to his athletic profile.
Figuring out ways to incorporate both rookies into the offense should be at the top of Josh McDaniels’s summer to-do list as they’ll add a sorely missed element to the offense.
The new tandem in Foxboro might not bring back the glory days of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. But they’ll be fun to watch in their own right.