The New England Patriots knew they needed to improve their tight end position heading into the 2020 NFL draft, and they did just that. The team started by trading up to bring UCLA’s Devin Asiasi on board with the 91st overall pick. A short time later in the third round, the Patriots were on the clock again: they had sent three total draft choices to the New York Jets in order to move up the board once more and make a selection at number 101.
The target of New England’s trade-up was Dalton Keene out of Virginia Tech — a player with considerable experience after having started 38 games over his three-year college career, but one that has had limited statistical success: Keene entered the draft with only 59 receptions on his résumé for 748 yards and eight touchdowns. Still, the Patriots saw something in Keene that was worth making a move for on Day Two of the draft.
What might have caused the team’s aggressive behavior (other than owning a league-high 13 picks heading into the second day of the draft)? Keene’s versatility appears to be a starting point for this analysis. While he was underutilized in the passing game at Virginia Tech, his ability to play multiple roles was a major asset for the team and made him a key cog in its offensive machinery: he lined up in-line, at H-back, flexed out wide, and also occasionally in the backfield.
“I think probably the best [role model] for me is George Kittle,” Keene said during his introductory media conference call when speaking about his multi-faceted skillset. “I think he’s a super versatile tight end and they do a lot of different things there. That’s what I pride myself on doing: being a versatile tight end and being able to do a lot of different things, playing from the slot, or playing fullback, or to play traditional tight end.”
Under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have always put a premium on players being able to fill more than one role — something that was recently reiterated by defensive tackle Lawrence Guy as well — while also trying to put them in the best position to maximize their talents. In this sense, Keene seems like a natural fit for the team’s system: he has experience wearing more than one hat from his time with the Hokies and an intriguing athletic foundation.
“The level of versatility at Virginia Tech, I think they tried to do a lot of different things with me,” Keene said. “It was awesome that they trusted me to do so many different things and I think it says a lot about how I play and as a football player. That’s why I’m so excited that I got picked up by the Patriots because I think they do so many different things with their tight ends and are really creative there. I couldn’t be happier with where I ended up.”
“I’ll start off with the Patriot Way, one that I have in the back of my mind just because I love the culture so much,” Keene added. “The winning culture and just taking it day by day and working hard. I think that really reflects me as a player. My coach texted me, Coach [Justin] Fuente, and he said basically that I have the uncanny ability to go to work every single day. I thought that’s something that really reflects on this program as well.”
Keene’s eagerness to get to work and to play multiple roles makes him an intriguing addition to the Patriots’ tight end group alongside fellow third-round rookie Devin Asiasi. How the two youngsters will eventually be used by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and how returning veterans Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo fit into the equation as well this season remains to be seen, of course. However, Keene and Asiasi both offer a combination of upside and flexibility that the position sorely lacked in 2019.