Patriots Mailbag: Will Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene Impact Offseason Plan at Tight End?

The Patriots selected Asiasi and Keene in the third round last year but still have the worst group of tight ends in the NFL.

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One can only put the void in the Patriots’ offense at the tight end position into proper context by looking at the lack of production over the last two seasons. 

Since 2019, the 706 receiving yards by tight ends for New England is over 200 yards fewer than any other team. Their 56 catches are also the fewest in the NFL by a wide margin, as are their three touchdowns, and the Pats’ tight ends have the lowest PFF receiving grade in that span (45.7). 

The man in charge of the roster-building, Bill Belichick, saw how talent poor his tight end room was in the 2019 season, and his response was to select two of them back-to-back in the 2020 draft. 

Belichick traded up twice to select Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round last April. 

Although expectations for rookie tight ends are always low, Asiasi and Keene combined to haul in just five catches for 55 yards and one touchdown by Asiasi in Week 17 as rookies. 

My question to Belichick is this: how much do their investments into Asiasi and Keene matter to their approach towards an impressive group of free agents and draft tight ends? And how much should it matter? Are they willing to invest even more to solve the problem? 

Belichick’s infamous response to a question about the team electing to punt on the wide receiver position in the 2020 draft might shed some light on how he views tight ends this year. 

New England’s football czar pointed to selecting wide receiver N’Keal Harry in the 2019 first round and trading their 2020 second-round pick for veteran Mohamed Sanu as the reason why the team didn’t pick another wide receiver last April. 

Sanu didn’t make it out of camp, Harry’s nagging injuries and route-running struggles sunk him again in year two, and the offensive skill talent was among the worst in the NFL.

Although they shouldn’t give up on Asiasi and Keene, the Pats can’t make the same mistake and need to be honest with themselves about the ceilings of their second-year tight ends. 

Asiasi has the receiving skills and blocking chops to develop into a viable in-line tight end, but only Belichick and the coaching staff know if he’s capable of making a big leap in year two. 

On the other hand, Keene was an odd scheme fit that struggled mightily with the transition to a more traditional tight end role. Belichick himself admitted that Keene was used entirely differently at Virginia Tech than in New England and that hefty adjustment showed. 

To be frank, I’m still trying to figure out what the team saw in Keene to trade two fourth-round picks and a sixth-rounder to jump back into the end of the third round to take him last year. 

Turning our attention to the crop of free-agent tight ends, the class is headlined by Belichick darlings Hunter Henry (projected $12.5M APY) and Jonnu Smith (projected $9.5M APY). Then there are also tier two options in Gerald Everett, Jared Cook, and Packers RFA Robert Tonyan. 

With two top 101 picks in their second seasons, will Belichick pay top-dollar? Henry or Smith would instantly make the offense better while the others are serviceable and buy the second-year tandem time to develop. 

However, that’s now a chunk of cap space and two higher-end picks used at the position in consecutive offseasons, and it’ll be difficult to find playing time for everybody. 

Tight End Best Traits Worst Traits Potential
1. Kyle Pitts, Florida Elite WR-like receiving skills, massive frame (6-6), arguably the best release package in the class, sure hands with CC ability, body control and flexibility, plays above the rim with ease, strong at the top of the route with good wiggle, converted QB with alignment versatility, YAC skills of a WR, avoids jams/contact, effort is there as run blocker Will be viewed as hybrid TE/WR, best detatched from the formation, needs to pace out stems and set up horizontal breaks better, power at POA as run blocker, poor hand technique+body control as run blocker, radar/accuracy on move blocks All-Pro
2. Pat Freiermuth, Penn State Strong receiver and high-ceiling blocker, sure hands with body control/flexibility to work outside frame, changes speeds in stems to accelearte, avoids/overwhelms contact, seam runner speed, will step on toes and bump in breaks, YAC ability, big red zone target, good receiver instincts Need to fully buy into blocking, soft inside hand/gets crossed faced too much, needs to paly with better leverage as run blocker Above-average starter
3. Brevin Jordan, Miami Aligned in-line/slot/backfield, seam runner with good vertical burst, beast in YAC mode, reliable hands and catch radius, fluid and physical in his routes, getting better at hiding route breaks and finding soft spots in zone, high-effort blocker, very good WR screen/perimeter blocker In-line blocking technique (hand placement/staying square), route pacing and setting up breaks, contested catch skills are just okay, flex TE/WR type Above-average starter
4. Hunter Long, Boston College Aligns at multiple spots, good size (6-5, 254), proper pacing and adjustments to find soft spots in zones, angled stems into the seams to get inside position, contested catch skills with strong hands and catch radius, shields defenders with frame, YAC ability, in-line blocking value, feet always working into blocks Fluid but not super twitchy, rounds his route breaks, needs to come downhill out of break NFL starter
5. Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame Flex TE best utilized as a motion/perimeter blocker and chess piece receiver, fluid route-runner that bursts into space, can win in the MOF, slot/backfield/lead blocker, has enough shake after the catch, active feet and motor as a run blocker, has the movement skills for much better receiving production Very limited receiving production due to depth at TE, shouldn’t be asked to be an in-line blocker, needs specialized role as move/h-back TE, hands were a bit shaky at times NFL starter

Similarly, in the draft, Florida’s Kyle Pitts is a generational talent that will go early in April, but Pitts is just the headliner in a class with five prospects rated ahead of my TE1 last year.

Belichick double-dipped in a weak tight end class a year ago, knowing that the 2021 class was loaded, so here we are addressing needs but getting nowhere. 

The best way to solve the problem is to keep throwing darts at the board. Still, the entire offseason hinges on if Belichick, unlike at wide receiver, invests more of his high-end resources on tight ends. 

Now let’s get to your questions. There are several repeats each week, so I tried to change it up a little. Thanks to everyone that asked a question, and I’ll continue to look through as many angles as possible:

My answer might surprise you: Lance, Jones, Fields, Wilson, Trask, Newman. Lance is a much better system fit than it appears on the surface. He’s excellent in the quick game, off under-center play-action, opens up the field vertically, and can run Cam Newton’s option package. Jones’s attention to detail and consistency from clean pockets are reasons why he’s beloved for the Patriots by many. Fields’ physical gifts put him ahead of Wilson, but he was a tick slow through his reads in an option route-heavy scheme at OSU. Wilson is a much better fit in a McVay/Shanahan-style scheme and shies away from throws at the intermediate level. He’s a high-end vertical thrower with excellent arm talent, but Wilson isn’t the type of passer that typically thrives in New England. Trask and Newman are likely career backups, with Trask having some low-end starter upside. 

By now, we all know the top names in the draft at wide receiver, so let’s discuss some day two options. My favorite day two guys are USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown, Ole Miss wideout Elijah Moore, and Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace. Although Moore is the burner of the group, Brown is my preference. He combines an excellent blend of pacing and fluidity in his routes to create ample separation in his breaks, even if he’s not an elite speed guy. He can also play inside or outside and has natural ball carrying skills after the catch. We are dying for the Pats to add a natural separator, and Brown checks that box. I’ll add in one first-round name that we don’t discuss a ton in Rashod Bateman. Another smooth operator that runs excellent routes and creates separation with his technique at the break point. I love his game too, and we all know my affinity towards Jaylen Waddle

Cornerback Patrick Surtain (day one), linebacker Pete Werner (day two), and defensive lineman Tyler Shelvin (day two) are your best fits. Surtain is a patient, physical, and sticky press-man corner that takes on a similar style as Stephon Gilmore. Not saying he’ll be Gilmore, but I can tell Surtain studies Gilmore. Werner is one of my favorite day two prospects in the draft and reminds me of 49ers linebacker Fred Warner (I’ve also seen comparisons to K.J. Wright). At 6-3, 245 pounds, he has the size, length, and punching power to disengage from blockers against the run with coverage skills like a safety and is an excellent off-ball blitzer. Werner is one of the best coverage linebackers I’ve studied over the last five drafts. His route anticipation, instincts, and ability to recover on play-action attempts are superb. Shelvin is the draft’s best nose tackle and could fill that role on day one. Even when double-teamed, he’s an immovable object yet still has enough lateral mobility to make tackles outside his area. 

Glad someone asked this question because all three are interesting prospects. I have it Quincy Roche, Jaelan Phillips, and then Gregory Rousseau. Rousseau has the highest floor out of the three, but I wish he were a little more sudden and explosive in his initial movements for a top 50 pick. Phillips would be my EDGE2 if it wasn’t for all the injuries and has that freaky length+athleticism combo. He has a high ceiling but struggles at times to stay healthy. Roche is my EDGE2 at the moment. He fits perfectly as a standup OLB in a 3-4. Roche’s hand usage and natural leverage make him extremely difficult to square up for offensive tackles in pass protection, and he has the stalkiness to set the edge. All three should be on our radars. 

The Patriots are expecting Hightower to return for the 2020 season. My understanding is that both sides are open to discussing a contract extension for a vital part of the Pats defense that will lower his 2021 cap number. Currently, Hightower is counting $12.4 million against the cap. Although it’s not worth losing Hightower, signing him to an extension that lowers that number in the short-term with some new money to incentivize him into agreeing to the deal makes sense. Along with his on-field leadership, Hightower’s physical presence and versatility were sorely missed last season. 

The Saints are $66 million over the cap, and although the goal is to keep their core together, it feels like someone between the Kamara, Lattimore, and Thomas trio might need to go. Thomas, who had some disagreements with the team in the past, feels like the odd man out. For the Patriots, the fit for Thomas depends on the style of the next quarterback. If they’re running a timing-based scheme that will let Thomas operate out of the slot, he’s the perfect number one. Thomas plays with an edge, is tough going over the middle of the field, and breaks routes off crisply on slants and option-style patterns. But he will not be mistaken for a vertical route-runner, so you need an accurate and quick-processing quarterback for it to make sense. If the idea is to find Brady-lite in, let’s say, Mac Jones, then Thomas makes all the sense in the world. If you’re developing a new-age quarterback like Trey Lance or rolling with Cam, it’s not the best fit. Thomas’s base salary is $12.6 million for the 2021 season, so it’s an affordable contract from a cap perspective. The question is will New Orleans trade him?

Two names: wide receiver Tim Patrick and tight end Robert Tonyan. Patrick would be a great get as a true boundary receiver with excellent build speed, body control, and ball tracking skills to win on the outside. But the Broncos might place a second-round tender on him. Packers tight end Robert Tonyan is another good one. Tonyan is a useful vertical/seam runner and in-line blocker. It’ll be interesting to see if Green Bay, who is currently over the cap, makes a significant effort to keep Tonyan. If not, he might be the sneaky tight end signing for the Patriots. 

I want to answer the part of the question about Malik Hooker. Hooker is a failed first-rounder for Indy that never built on a strong rookie season due to injuries. We know how much Belichick likes a first-round reclamation project, and with Devin McCourty’s age, I wonder if the Pats will try to look ahead at free safety. Hooker will be cheap, and when healthy, is an elite center fielder with excellent range and ball skills. His instincts aren’t on McCourty’s level, but his ability to make an impact in the deep part of the field is next-level when he’s out there. It might be worth seeing if he can develop into McCourty’s replacement. The question is will Hooker embrace a reduced role as he tries to save his career?

As a secondary signing following a splash, Williams would be a nice addition. He’s got size, inside-outside versatility, and is a reliable route-runner and ball carrier after the catch. Belichick has heaped praise on Williams in the past, too, so you know BB was a fan at some point. Again, Williams can’t be your only move. But if they add a top pass-catcher and bring in Williams as depth, they could do a lot worse. 

I’ve always thought of McKinney as a Patriots fit. He’s a “phone booth” linebacker meaning he’s his best coming towards the line of scrimmage where he can take on blockers and thump in the trenches. Although he’s a liability at times in coverage, he’s a physical downhill striker that plays a Patriots brand of football. I could see them taking a flier if he’s available.