For the second season in a row, the New England Patriots’ tight end position did not live up to its expectations. With Ryan Izzo leading the group for most of the year, and with third-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene struggling with injuries, the group finished the 2020 campaign with just 18 receptions for a combined 254 yards and one touchdown.
Despite the disappointing output, however, the group can head into the offseason feeling good about its last game together. While Izzo spent it on the sideline — he was placed on injured reserve in December because of hamstring, hand and neck ailments and never activated — Asiasi and Keene had arguably the best games of their respective careers versus the New York Jets. Asiasi in particular stood out.
Playing 35 of a possible 65 offensive snaps, the 23-year-old registered the first two catches of his professional career. On top of that, he also found the end zone on a 26-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Cam Newton.
“It’s definitely a great feeling getting that first one,” the youngster said during a postgame media conference call. “But I think, as a collective, having that win and ending off with a win, getting that team win was the best feeling. Going into the offseason, I think that gives us a little momentum and a little confidence going into the spring and into the fall. It’s definitely something to build off of.”
The Patriots entered their season finale against the New York Jets already eliminated from playoff contention, but they did not display a laissez-faire attitude. Instead, they played one of their most complete contest of the season and made big plays in all three phases of the game en route to a 28-14 victory.
Along the way, Asiasi also contributed as a blocker and in the receiving game to end a mostly disappointing season on a positive note. However, he would shy away from classifying his performance versus the Jets as a breakout game.
“I think it’s just another step,” said Asiasi. “I think it’s another step in my growth as a player. That’s how I’m going to take it. I’m going to approach every win and every loss the same way. I’m going to try to see what I can do better. Obviously, it wasn’t perfect out there, so there’s definitely room for improvement in the game. For me, the situation with the win and the touchdown, it’s definitely just a step for me. That’s how I’m going to treat it. I’m going to be humble about it, keep working and keep grinding. I’m going to try to keep writing my name in my spot.”
Asiasi joined the Patriots as 91st overall selection in the 2020 draft, but had a limited impact during what proved to be a challenging rookie campaign. Not only did a lack of traditional offseason workouts and preseason limit his exposure to the system and his offensive teammates, he also had to spend five weeks on injured reserve midway through the regular season.
Entering Week 17, Asiasi had therefore played just 178 offensive snaps without registering even a single catch. His final game of the year was a step in the right direction, though.
“It was up and down,” the youngster said about his first year in the NFL. “Just like anything, you go through your struggles throughout the whole process. Those are the things that harden you, that get you better and grow you into the person that I am right now. I take all those lessons and situations and I take it forward in things that I can learn from, things that I can hold dear to my heart.
“Obviously, the tragedy of losing two of my close family this past year, definitely made me go harder in the season. It made me cherish the moments I have with everybody around me and cherish the moments that I have with my teammates. For me, it was just about being consistent, keep working, keep grinding and try to improve every day and improve every week.”
That process of improvement was also not lost on his quarterback. Cam Newton, who also finished the season strong after a disappointing few weeks, spoke about Asiasi during his postgame media call and mentioned how his talent was obvious in practice even though it had yet to translate to an in-game situation — at least before the contest versus the Jets.
“He’s still young. There was a growing element as part of his season,” said Newton. “Just for him to head into the offseason with a game like today is a great step in the right direction for ‘Acai Bowl.’ For him to make a great catch for the touchdown, something that he needs to keep doing, he will keep doing. He has so much talent. He shows so much flashes in practice. It’s great just to see it in a game.”
While it remains to be seen how the Patriots will approach their tight end position this offseason, Keene and especially Asiasi playing prominent roles next season is certainly not an unrealistic projection.