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Patriots vs 49ers rookie review: Dalton Keene plays a versatile role in his NFL debut

Related: Patriots vs 49ers snap counts: Chase Winovich’s usage not the only curious personnel decision

NFL: OCT 25 49ers at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots played their worst game of the season against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, getting blown out 33-6 in a contest that was never that close to begin with. While there is a lot to feel bad about coming out of the game with a 2-4 record, one positive is that New England again saw some sizable if not always mistake-free contributions from its rookie class.

With that being said, let’s review their performances from this weekend.

LB Anfernee Jennings

  • Defensive snaps: 53 of 66 (80%)
  • Special teams snaps: 6 of 21 (29%)

For the second week in a row, Anfernee Jennings has set a new career high in playing time share: after being on the field for 25 percent of New England’s defensive snaps against the Denver Broncos last week, he played 53 of 66 snaps versus San Francisco. Seeing action both as an outside linebacker and in the box as the number two off-the-ball option alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley, he was featured prominently on the Patriots’ defense.

His performance, however, was shaky at times: Jennings seemed insecure dropping into coverage at times and also failed to make an impact when pressing downhill. Growing pains like these had to be expected from a rookie in the Coronavirus-dominated 2020 season, but it is nevertheless encouraging to at least see him get valuable game reps.

OT/G Michael Onwenu

  • Offensive snaps: 52 of 52 (100%)
  • Special teams snaps: 2 of 21 (10%)

Despite the Patriots getting center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason back from injured reserve and the Covid-19 reserve list, respectively, Michael Onwenu kept his starting spot on the offensive line: with Jermaine Eluemunor being moved to injured reserve because of an ankle injury, Onwenu took over as the team’s new right tackle. He ended up playing only 41 of his 52 snaps at the position, though, as the other 11 came at left guard following Joe Thuney’s game-ending ankle injury.

Onwenu moved to the interior on the second series of the third quarter. However, he had to kick out again to right tackle after his replacement, fellow rookie Justin Herron, also hurt his ankle and had to leave the game. Despite the personnel instability up front, Onwenu generally had another solid game no matter where he lined up.

TE Dalton Keene

  • Offensive snaps: 24 of 52 (46%)
  • Special teams snaps: 7 of 21 (33%)

For the first time in his NFL career, Dalton Keene was able to make the Patriots’ game-day roster on Sunday. After missing the first five games of the season — he dealt with a neck injury early on and later became a healthy scratch — he was used in place of fellow third-round rookie Devin Asiasi as the number two tight end alongside veteran Ryan Izzo. In fact, Keene actually out-snapped Izzo by seeing plenty of action late in the game.

How did the Patriots use Keene, you may ask? As both a receiver and a run blocker all over the formation: he played mostly from the slot (12 snaps), but was also used in-line (9 snaps), split out wide (2 snaps) and as a fullback (1 snap). As opposed to Asiasi, he also caught a pass when he reeled in an 8-yard throw from quarterback Cam Newton. While he did not make any game-changing plays, his debut was a solid one.

OT Justin Herron

  • Offensive snaps: 12 of 52 (23%)
  • Special teams snaps: 2 of 21 (10%)

With the aforementioned David Andrews and Shaq Mason returning to the lineup, and with Michael Onwenu taking over Jermaine Eluemunor’s former role at right tackle, Herron had to start the game against San Francisco on the bench. After the Joe Thuney injury mentioned above, however, he was back on the field — if only for 12 snaps: Herron also hurt his ankle and had to spend the rest of the game sidelined.

LB Cassh Maluia

  • Defensive snaps: N/A
  • Special teams snaps: 9 of 21 (43%)

Sixth-round rookie Cassh Maluia continues to exclusively be used on special teams, but he is clearly becoming a valuable player for the Patriots in the game’s third phase. He again was used on both the team’s kick and punt return units, playing seven and one snaps, respectively, as well as the kick coverage team (1 snap as well). Maluia may not yet be a four-unit player like Matthew Slater or Justin Bethel, but he will likely get a chance to prove himself with Brandon Copeland expected to miss the remainder of the season due to a pectoral injury.

S Kyle Dugger

  • Inactive

Heading into the weekend, the Patriots had six players listed on their injury report. One of them was the team’s highest draft pick this year: second-round safety Kyle Dugger was listed as questionable with an ankle injury. On Sunday, he eventually ended up joining defensive tackle Carl Davis as the lone injured players to be deactivated and in turn had to miss the first game of his professional career after playing some prominent snaps over his first five contests.

TE Devin Asiasi

  • Inactive

While the third-round draft pick did not show up on the stat sheet even once over the first five games of the season, and was not employed on special teams, he did receive regular opportunities within the Patriots’ offense: as the number two tight end behind Ryan Izzo, Asiasi was on the field for 81 of a possible 337 snaps through Week 6. In Week 7, however, he was inactive declared inactive in favor of the aforementioned Dalton Keene.

RB J.J. Taylor

  • Inactive

For the third week in a row, J.J. Taylor did not contribute to the Patriots’ offense. Even with Sony Michel still out — he was moved to injured reserve before later being diagnosed with the Coronavirus — the undrafted rookie is unable to carve out a consistent role in New England’s backfield. Despite some promising moments earlier during the season, it seems as if the team is more confident going with Damien Harris, James White and Rex Burkhead as the game-day backs.

CB/S Myles Bryant

  • Inactive

For the fifth week in a row, Bryant was declared a healthy scratch. This is no surprise given his status as an undrafted rookie free agent, and the fact that the Patriots have arguably the deepest secondary in all of football. And with the top of the depth chart set in stone despite some ups and downs against San Francisco, there will likely not be a spot on the game day roster for the youngster anytime soon.