Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s draft picks.
Name: Dalton Keene
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: TBD
Opening day age: 21
Size: 6-foot-4, 250 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Keene arrived in the NFL as a third-round draft pick by the Patriots earlier this offseason. Accordingly, his experience at the pro level is effectively non-existent: while he did participate in the team’s virtual offseason sessions and rookie developmental program over the last seven weeks, he has yet to step onto the practice field together with his teammates due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, Keene does have a lot of competitive football on his résumé stemming from his time in college.
Before getting drafted by New England, after all, he appeared in 39 games for Virginia Tech over three years. Keene’s athletic skills and versatility were omnipresent during his time with the Hokies, but he was underutilized as a receiving option in the passing game: aligning primarily from the H-back spot and running a limited route tree primarily in the underneath portions of the field, he saw only 71 combined passes thrown his way. Keene caught 59 of them for a total of 748 receiving yards as well as eight touchdowns.
His receiving numbers can best be described as mediocre, and the same can be said for his role as a part-time ball carrier: Keene attempted 11 rushes over the course of his college career — all of which coming during his senior campaign — for a combined 33 yards. He was a key cog in his team’s offensive machinery due to his versatility, but still never managed to get consistent looks as a pass catcher or runner.
What did his 2019 season look like? Keene started preparations for his 2019 junior season on the sidelines after undergoing a procedure on his knee during the offseason. While it did force the youngster to sit out Virginia Tech’s spring practices, he eventually returned to the field during the summer and went on to appear in all 13 of his team’s games over the course of the season — only once missing time due to a medical issue when he was “shaken up” during the Hokies’ game against Old Dominion in September.
All in all, Keene’s third season in Blacksburg looked a lot like his first two. He saw extensive action as the team’s H-back — being on the field for a total of 696 offensive snaps — but posted comparatively pedestrian numbers due to his usage within the offensive system. Keene was targeted a mere 26 times in the passing game, finishing with 21 receptions for 240 yards as well as a career-high five touchdowns. Effectively, he was just the team’s fourth or fifth receiving option in the passing game on an average down.
That said, Keene did show off his versatility by moving all over the formation on a regular basis and even serving as the team’s starting running back at one point: in mid-October against North Carolina, he received seven hand-offs that he took for a combined 25 yards. Keene also registered four more carries for eight yards at other points during what later turned out to be his final campaign at Virginia Tech. Despite his statistics in 2019 and the previous two years, he decided to forgo his senior campaign and enter the draft.
What is his projected role? The Patriots completely overhauled their tight end position during this year’s draft, and Keene is therefore projected to play a notable role both in 2020 and beyond. While not as polished as fellow third-round pick Devin Asiasi, or as experienced as Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo, his versatility is intriguing: Keene could be used as a rotational move tight end in the so-called joker role — carrying out tight end assignments, but also serving as an H-back, fullback or split out wide as a receiver.
What is his special teams value? New England used its tight ends only sparingly in the kicking game last year: the four players under contract at one point — LaCosse, Izzo, Benjamin Watson and Eric Tomlinson — played only a combined 13 special teams snaps. That said, the Patriots have never shied away from using the position in the game’s third phase as well. Keene’s special teams role could therefore look like that of Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister back in 2018, when the two were used on both return squads and the two coverage units.
Does he have positional versatility? Keene’s ability to line up in numerous spots may be his biggest asset. He can fill a traditional in-line role as both a blocker and receiver, serve as a backfield option — from H-back to fullback to running back — and also be moved to the slot and the perimeter. The rookie has proven himself a matchup-specific chess piece in college despite his limited production, and it seems likely that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will use him in a similar capacity.
What is his salary cap situation? Shortly after getting selected as the 101st overall pick in this year’s draft, the Patriots and Keene agreed on a standard four-year rookie contract. As part of the deal, the 21-year-old will hit New England’s books with a salary cap number of $818,073 — even though only a fraction of it ($143,073) is currently counting against the cap under the NFL’s top-51 rule. Once Keene makes the 53-man roster or an injury-related reserve list, though, his full $818,073 will factor against the Patriots’ cap.
What is his roster outlook? Given his draft position and potential upside in New England’s system, Keene is a lock to make the team. The main question is how he will be used on the offensive side of the ball and as part of a tight end group that struggled mightily in 2019. While there is a chance that he starts the season near the bottom of the depth chart behind more experienced options LaCosse and/or Izzo, as well as the well-rounded Asiasi, Keene might very well get regular looks during his rookie year due to his versatile skillset. Either way, he projects as a quality TE2 in the long term.