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Increased practice time could lead to bigger roles for the Patriots’ rookie tight ends

Related: Bill Belichick explains what the Patriots have to do better in the passing game

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ tight end position continues to stand out only because of its lack of production in the passing game. All in all, the team’s players at the position have been targeted only 22 times this season while catching a mere 14 passes for 207 yards. Measured in terms of targets, receptions and touchdowns, the group is ranked last in the NFL; only the Carolina Panthers’ tight ends have registered fewer yards through the air (176).

Needless to say that the position remains a major Achilles heel for the Patriots’ offense in Year Two after future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski. That said, the club did try to upgrade over the course of the offseason and after losing last year’s TE1, Benjamin Watson, to retirement (and before seeing TE2 Matt LaCosse opt out due to Coronavirus concerns).

With the 91st overall pick in the draft, UCLA’s Devin Asiasi was brought aboard. Just 10 selections later, New England double-dipped by adding Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene. Their back-to-back selections evoked memories of the 2010 draft, when the Patriots added Gronkowski in Round Two and Aaron Hernandez in Round Four. However, the Asiasi-Keene tandem did not have quite the same impact so far during its rookie campaign.

All in all, the two have combined to play just 182 offensive snaps over nine total in-game appearances. For comparison, third-year man Ryan Izzo has 626 snaps on his résumé.

A combination of injuries and difficult circumstances — no traditional offseason due to Covid-19, a run-centric offensive attack — led to this relatively modest output. With Izzo now on IR and both Asiasi and Keene off it again following short stints on the reserve list, however, the stage appears to be set for the youngsters to leave finally leave a mark. And according to Bill Belichick there is actually a chance for that.

“It’s good to have them back out there,” said the Patriots’ head coach during his media conference call on Wednesday. “Last week, they had a little more playing time, but unfortunately it didn’t correlate into more practice time or quality practice time because of the schedule we were on. So, we’ll see how it goes here as they get more experience and reps at what they’re doing and then how that transfers over into the game.”

With Izzo entering the regular season as the number one at the tight end position, Asiasi and Keene saw only limited action early on. Asiasi played the number two role but did not register any statistics even as his role was growing a bit over the first five games of the season. Keene, meanwhile, struggled with a neck injury the first two weeks and was declared a healthy scratch after his return to full strength.

Even though Keene eventually overtook Asiasi on the depth chart for the Week 7 game against the San Francisco 49ers, all he produced was one 8-yard catch. He went back to inactivity due to a knee ailment and later was sent to injured reserve in November — one week after Asiasi was sent there as well because of an undisclosed injury.

The two returned to practice after sitting out three games each on IR, with Keene seeing action in two games since. With Izzo being moved to injured reserve himself ahead of the Thursday night game versus the Los Angeles Rams, the door was open for Asiasi to also return to the active squad. Against the Rams, therefore, the two rookies served as the one-two punch at tight end for the first time in their young careers.

Their impact was again limited — Asiasi registered one incomplete target on 23 snaps, Keene did not post any statistics on his 31 — but as Belichick explained, a lack of practice time contributed to that.

“Both guys missed some time there kind of right in the middle of the season after they’d gotten started and had made some progress, and then weren’t able to continue and now have resumed full activity,” Belichick said. “So, hopefully we can make progress every day. We’ll just have to see how that all works out here. ...

“I think we made the most of what we had, but, yeah, not ideal. You’d like everybody out there all the time, but unfortunately that’s not really realistic in the National Football League.”

With Izzo remaining on injured reserve for at least two more games, New England has handed the keys to the position over to the youngsters. They now have a golden opportunity to study the ins and outs of a position that is notoriously hard to learn in the Patriots’ system as the top-two in practice, and to prove that they indeed can be the team’s future and possible present at tight end.