After already investing in the position earlier in the third round of last month’s draft, the New England Patriots went back and selected another tight end 10 picks later: with the 101st overall choice, the team brought Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene on board to provide depth and potentially dynamic receiving skills alongside fellow rookies Devin Asiasi, Jake Burt and Rashod Berry, as well as returning veterans Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo.
But what exactly is it that the Patriots can expect from the youngster? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.
Keene’s experience as a receiver upon entering the NFL can best be described as limited: in three seasons as a member of Virginia Tech’s run-centric offensive system, he caught only 59 combined passes for a grand total of 748 yards and eight touchdowns. That said, he did show some exciting flashes as a pass catcher during his college career despite his limited opportunities and comparatively pedestrian statistics.
He showed that he can be a natural hands catcher and has also made some impressive downfield adjustments to the ball in the air. Furthermore, Keene has plenty of juice to get behind defenses in the middle of the field on seam or over routes:
The flashes from Keene as a receiver are really exciting. He's a natural hands catcher and made some impressive downfield adjustments. Has plenty of juice to get behind defenses in the middle of the field on seam and over routes pic.twitter.com/wu6BxAlpxb— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 3, 2020
As can be seen on the plays shown here, Keene is able to adjust to the ball in the air quite well and takes advantage of his frame — he was measured at 6-foot-4, 253 pounds at the scouting combine — to out-jump and out-muscle smaller defensive backs or linebackers in coverage. Furthermore, he has developed a good feel and the necessary toughness to attack seam and crossing routes even with defenders looming over the top.
That said, the Hokies’ scheme did limit his ability to make a regular impact as a receiver in part because of the route tree he had to work with: the team used him mostly on underneath patterns and screens that allowed him to work his magic in the open space.
As you've heard a million times by now, Keene's route tree at Virginia Tech was very limited. Mostly underneath routes and screens that let him work his magic in space.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 3, 2020
But I think he's got the hips, agility to run the Patriots' TE tree. Also like what I saw from him vs zone. pic.twitter.com/lSOIN9YZO5
Even though he has little experience running more complex route combinations, Keene’s foundational skillset should allow him to find success in the Patriots’ more diverse scheme. He has the hips and the overall agility to run his new team’s route tree, and also has shown the necessary feel for finding soft spots in zone coverage.
Just look at the second play shown above (0:10): originally aligning offset to the quarterback’s right in the backfield, Keene finds an opening between three Kentucky defenders and patiently sits down to wait for the arrival of the football and hold onto it after the reception. If he can build on this ability to read defensive alignments and coverages, and hone his natural receiving skills, Keene could find success as a pass catcher at the next level despite his limited production in college.
Run after catch
Maybe the most exciting part of Keene’s game is the work that he does after the catch. Not only is he a physical ball carrier that does not shy away from lowering his shoulders and initiating contact, he also offers excellent balance and the necessary wheels in the open field to generate additional yardage with the ball in his hands. As can be seen on the following clip, Virginia Tech regularly tried to take advantage of this:
If you don't like tough, versatile TEs nicknamed Rambo, this ain't the thread for you.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 3, 2020
Maybe the most exciting part of #Patriots rookie TE Dalton Keene's game is the work he does after the catch. Physical ball carrier with excellent contact balance and wheels in the open field pic.twitter.com/LokOSR1CVi
As noted above, a large volume of Keene’s receptions came via short passes. Even though his size makes for an unusual player in such situations, the 21-year-old proved to be a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands: he has the necessary wiggle to get away from defenders even after they initiated contact (0:00), the vision to successfully read his blocks in screen situations (0:25), and the short-area quickness to make cuts in an instant (0:58).
As a result of all this, Keene finished his college career with nine broken tackle attempts on just 59 receptions.
Keene’s approach to the game also can be seen on his blocking tape. He proved himself a physical player in this area through the whistle, and clearly takes pride in this part of his game. He does not only have the requisite grit and mentality, however, but also possesses the power to back it up. When he makes contact, defenders can feel him.
Loved watching Keene get after it as a blocker. He's physical through the whistle and clearly takes pride in this area of his game.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 3, 2020
Not only does Keene have the requisite grit and mentality, but he also has the power to back it up. Jolts defenders when he makes contact. pic.twitter.com/HU3UDxjt9C
Keene is a driver when it comes to charging forward as a run blocker: he keeps his legs moving through contact and is capable of regularly driving his assignments into the ground as a result. That said, for all of his physicality and willingness to engage, Keene also has too many instances of poor technique which in turn results in him getting thrown down at too high a rate. As a result, he needs to get more consistent at keeping his head up when initiating contact, tighten his hand placement, and widen his base to keep balance.
For all his success as a blocker, Keene also has moments too many instances of poor technique resulting in him on the ground or being thrown by defenders.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 3, 2020
Needs to stop dropping his head when initiating contact, tighten up his hand placement, and widen his base more consistently pic.twitter.com/8zJERxWgHl
Keene also oftentimes is too quick for his own good: he has a tendency to overrun his assignments when playing from the H-back position (0:07) and has moments when he simply seems to fall forward instead of properly engaging (0:27).
All in all, Keene has the mindset and physical edge to turn into a quality blocker at the next level, but he needs to become more consistent with his technique and vision: he is a work in progress, but does possess the flexibility to find success no matter if used in an in-line role or moved into the backfield as an H-back or fullback-type blocker. Speaking of which...
With James Develin announcing his retirement from pro football earlier this offseason, New England has a big hole within their offense to fill. While the two fullbacks currently under contract — free agency acquisition Danny Vitale and second-year man Jakob Johnson — are projected to fight for Develin’s former job, the team could also opt to go with one of its tight ends to help replace the long-time Patriot.
If that turns out to be the case, Keene seems like the most logical candidate considering that he has plenty of experience aligning in the backfield:
I hypothesized Keene could be the team's primary FB due to his size, toughness, and power.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 3, 2020
He often lined up in the backfield at Virginia Tech and flashed the ability to find and latch onto defenders in space, although he was used in a bunch of different ways from this alignment pic.twitter.com/12Z9N2iW3x
As the clip above shows, the Hokies regularly used Keene as an H-back in shotgun looks. While he would need to show that he can line up as a traditional fullback in the i-formation — something Develin did on a regular basis — he did identify and latch onto defenders when asked to block in space. Again, he needs to become more consistent with his technique, but serving as a run blocker out of the backfield is something that could come natural for him given his prior usage.
Keene was also regularly used as a ball carrier last season: he finished with 11 carries, a high number for a tight end, and gained 33 total yards on the ground.
Keene also carried the ball 11 (!!) times last season. Lined up at RB a handful of times vs North Caroline and, aside from a fumble, was better in the role than I expected.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) May 3, 2020
Did a really nice job in blitz pickup and showed impressive vision for a TE pic.twitter.com/EHXr8lq3WJ
Against North Carolina, Keene lined up in a traditional running back spot off-set to the quarterback quite a few times. He did a nice job as a pass protector (0:00), showed some good burst and vision when attacking his gaps (0:08), and displayed the same skills that were noted above as making him a dangerous player with the ball in his hands. Not all was perfect — he also had a fumble on one of his carries (0:25) — but he looked comfortable in this rather unusual role.
All in all, the potential Keene showed at Virginia Tech suggests that he could have a high ceiling as a flexible move tight end in the NFL. His inexperience as a receiver, rawness as a blocker, and the steep learning curve he will face at the next level will all be challenges for him, but it does seem like he has the mentality and work ethic to approach his potential.
At the very least, Keene should give the Patriots a flexible blocker who can make plays with the football in his hands. Down the road, he and fellow third-round pick Devin Asiasi could become a devastating 1-2 punch at tight end due to their versatility, athleticism, power, natural receiving talent, and ability to create yards after the catch — all things that New England lacked from its tight end position during a rather disappointing 2019 season.