For almost all of the 2010s, the New England Patriots had little to worry about at the tight end position. With the exception of the occasional injury, the undisputed top option at the position was in the process of building a Hall of Fame career. Once Rob Gronkowski decided to temporarily retire from pro football following the 2018 season, however, the lack of serviceable depth behind him became obvious: the tight end group struggled throughout 2019 regardless of who was in the lineup.
The Patriots were in need of a restart, similar to the one they made when Gronkowski and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez were brought aboard during the 2010 draft.
On Day Two of this year’s college player selection meeting, they found the foundation for their tight end room of the future. After selecting UCLA’s Devin Asiasi with the 91st overall pick, the Patriots double-dipped just 10 draft slots later by also adding Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene to the equation. Four months and veteran Matt LaCosse’s opt-out later, the two youngsters appear to be on the fast track to taking over New England’s tight end room.
Both Asiasi and Keene have seen considerable action one week into their first-ever full-speed training camp at the pro level, and are adjusting on the fly to life in the NFL after being unable to participate in any offseason work due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it’s a challenge for us rookies coming right now because of the whole situation,” said Asiasi during a media conference call on Monday. “We’re taking it day-by-day, trying to see and look at the things we can work on and seeing the things we’re doing well in. Keeping those tools sharp, but also putting different tools in the toolbox. For us, it’s trying to take it day-by-day, welcoming in the challenge every day and working hard and putting our best foot forward.”
Asiasi has been the most impressive member of a Patriots’ rookie tight end group that includes not just him and Keene but also undrafted free agents Jake Burt and (part-time defensive end) Rashod Berry. His quickness and route running stand out during practice, while his physicality as a blocker also cannot be ignored. At this point in time and with no other competitor stepping up, the 23-year-old is on his way to take over the starting role at tight end despite his lack of experience.
“Coming from the collegiate level, coming from UCLA, this is a big transition going into the NFL,” Asiasi acknowledged. “I think that in and of itself brings its own challenges. I think for me, it’s applying myself and putting in those extra hours of studying every night and then putting it on tape for the next day and keep on improving.”
This mindset was also shared by Dalton Keene. Coming from a run-based offense at Virginia Tech that does not resemble what New England or other NFL teams are doing, the 21-year-old has to fight through an even steeper learning curve than Asiasi — something that can be seen on the practice fields. Nevertheless, Keene’s focus remains on getting better and trying to adjust to a Patriots offense that could use him in a move tight end role as either a traditional fullback, an H-back, or a receiving option.
“There’s definitely a huge change in the speed of the game,” said Keene on Monday. “That’s something that I’m trying to adjust to still. I’m still learning a lot. I’m trying to make better, faster decisions and being a better fundamental football player. I think that’s a really big thing at this level, just having very sound fundamentals. They can plug and play you in a lot of different spots and you can help the team in a lot of different ways.”
Having Asiasi on his side as a companion, however, has helped Keene during the transition process from college to the pros.
“We were actually roommates at the Combine, so we got to know each other then,” he said. “That was a really good jump-start for our relationship coming here. We’re really comfortable with each other, we’re counting on each other in a lot of different ways on the field. It’s nice to have a guy that you know in kind of the same shoes as you, so you can help each other out. It helps with learning, it helps with competition.”
Asiasi sang a similar tune when asked about his perspective on the working relationship he has built with his fellow third-round rookie.
“It’s been great,” he said. “DK brings a lot to the table that complements the rest of the team’s game. Being able to learn from him, being able to see the way he works and the way he puts his best foot forward each and every day, it’s been a pleasure working alongside him, coming in with him as well.”
With Gronkowski merely a memory and the top-two from last year — Benjamin Watson and the aforementioned Matt LaCosse — both unavailable in 2020, Asiasi and Keene might be counted on to play considerable snaps within the Patriots’ new-look offense this year. They have the draft status and the upside, and are getting regular looks in practice to get better and prove their value to New England’s operation.
This has not gone unnoticed with the team’s more experienced players, such as running back Rex Burkhead, either. The fourth-year Patriot also spoke about the two youngsters during a recent media availability session.
“They have done a great job picking up the offense from the get-go,” said Burkhead about Asiasi and Keene. “They are doing a really good job building off every single day. If they made a mistake the previous day, just learn from that and not do it the next day. That is all you can ask for. These rookies are coming in right away and picking up the system.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick expressed some similar thoughts during his own press conference on Monday.
“Devin and Dalton have worked hard,” Belichick said. “They’ve been out there, they’ve taken a lot of reps, they continue to get better. They have a long way to go, as do all the rookies that we’ve drafted, but we’re seeing progress. We’ll see.”
Asiasi and Keene may have a long way to go, as Belichick pointed out, but the early results are encouraging while the situation as a whole is playing into their hands. The two rookies may not have the experience of other tight ends on the roster — Ryan Izzo has played six games last season and is in his third year in the system; Paul Butler also first arrived in the NFL in 2018 — but the road appears to be open for them to establish themselves as the one-two punch at the position for 2020 and beyond.