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Will the 2020 season mark the return of multiple-tight-end formations to the Patriots’ offense?

Related: Josh McDaniels needs to heed his own advice in 2020

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gave some insight into one of the New England Patriots’ core philosophies last offseason, when he said that his unit’s style should always reflect the strengths of the available personnel. Be it the spread looks of the late 2000s, the up-tempo and two-tight end attacks that followed it, or the ground-and-pound approach used during the 2018 Super Bowl run, the Patriots’ offensive identity always tells what the team thinks about the players on its roster.

Looking back at the 2019 season, we can therefore say with some confidence that the team did not feel good about its tight end position.

All in all, the players who were on the roster at one point last year — Matt LaCosse, Benjamin Watson, Ryan Izzo, Eric Tomlinson — combined to catch only 40 passes for 457 yards and three touchdowns during New England’s 16 regular season games and its lone playoff contest. Their limited role was not just a statistical one, but also manifested itself in the team’s offensive personnel usage and the formations run by the club.

Of the Patriots’ 1,210 combined offensive snaps during the regular season and playoffs, 206 came with two or more tight ends on the field (17%). All in all, the Patriots used those multiple-tight-end looks as follows last year:

  • 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers): 131
  • 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver): 2
  • 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver): 56
  • 23 personnel (two running backs, three tight ends, zero wide receivers): 17

While this usage of multiple-tight-end looks was no noteworthy shift compared to the Patriots’ 2018 season — the team used such formations 209 times the previous year for a rate of 15.2% — some potential for growth cannot be denied either. This is especially true considering that the position turned from one of strength with Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen under contract into arguably the weakest on the entire roster.

Fast forward to the 2020 season and a Patriots tight end depth chart that saw the infusion of some much-needed youth and developmental upside. With Watson announcing his retirement, only LaCosse and Izzo remain from last year’s group. While the team did not bring one of the big-name free agency options like Austin Hooper or Tyler Eifert aboard, it did invest considerable resources in the draft: both UCLA’s Devin Asiasi and Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene were selected in the third round.

Given their draft statuses, Asiasi and Keene can be seen as locks to make New England’s roster this year. And their presence could lead to McDaniels bringing back some of the old 12-personnel packages — just like he did during the aforementioned 2018 playoff run that saw the Patriots rely heavily on their ground game to get the job done.

While the role played by a running back group headed by Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead cannot be underestimated, the blocking up front was superb during New England’s three-game stretch that year. This was in part due to the contributions from the tight end position: Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen were on the field together for one fourth of the Patriots’ snaps (59 of 252) and helped the team dominate on the ground to the tune of 161.7 rushing yards per game.

Asiasi and Keene are of course different players than future Hall of Famer Gronkowski and savvy veteran Allen — not only do they lack experience but they also bring different skillsets to the table. However, they have both proven themselves as blockers in college from various alignments (Asiasi is more of an in-line blocker, Keene more of an H-back) and could thus help a Patriots ground game that will a) likely be asked to play a prominent role in the team’s offensive attack in Year One after starting quarterback Tom Brady, and b) have to move forward without long-time fullback James Develin.

Furthermore, they add a more dynamic element to the receiving game than what the LaCosse-Watson-Izzo-Tomlinson group brought to the table in 2019. With the Patriots lacking pedigree at wide receiver outside of Julian Edelman, McDaniels could therefore decide to use his young tight ends to help the offense in more than just one way this year and increase the share of two-plus-tight end packages to look more like it did during the 2019 postseason.

Will anybody confuse Asiasi and Keene with the Gronkowski-Hernandez tandem of the early 2010s? Unlikely. Nevertheless, the two could help the Patriots establish a new offensive identity yet again by allowing them to reintroduce 12-personnel and other multi-tight-end sets into their attack more regularly — thus building an offensive identity around the strengths of the roster, just like McDaniels said last year.