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2021 Patriots positional preview: Tight ends

Related: Patriots positional preview: Wide receivers

NFL: New England Patriots OTA Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots spent the better part of the last 24 months with an abhorrent tight end group.

In March of 2019 — following the NFL Draft — Rob Gronkowski retired, leaving the Patriots with little chance to replace him. That led to the team rolling out a group of 39 year old Ben Watson, journeyman Matt Lacosse, and seventh round pick Ryan Izzo. The trio only managed to haul in 36 receptions for 418 yards and two touchdowns.

In obvious need of a spark, the Patriots decided to get aggressive in the 2020 NFL Draft and take not one but two tight ends in the third round, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. Pairing those two with Izzo, the group somehow got significantly worse, putting up numbers that you would expect out of a camp body who somehow found his way on the roster. 18 receptions, 254 yards, one touchdown, and a 7-9 record later, they were forced to make some drastic changes.

That brings us to the 2021 offseason, where Bill Belichick had enough of the slander and went out and signed both top tight ends on the open market in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, to form a much improved group. Who will make up that position group? How will that group fare together? Who will play together? Glad you asked.

Jonnu Smith

There is a world of potential in Jonnu Smith. Despite increasing his numbers in every major category throughout his four year career and parlaying that growth into a four-year, $50 million contract, many are still expecting him to make a giant leap with the Patriots. How so? We’re glad you asked.

It first starts with an increased role within the offense. In his four years in Tennessee, Smith was never higher than the fifth option -in terms of touches- in his time as a Titan. In New England, there are no Derrick Henrys and A.J. Browns to take on 60% of the teams total touches (yes, that’s a real number) giving Smith and others increased opportunities with the ball. In addition to an increased role, Smith will have a partner in crime in the next man, to open up the field and help give everyone more favorable matchups.

Hunter Henry

Bill Belichick went into free agency with a plan to improve his tight end room that had lacked any sort of production in the last two seasons as the Patriots shocked the NFL world by signing Hunter Henry to a three year, $37.1 million dollar deal just a day after the Patriots gave big money to Jonnu Smith. Henry, who has been a red zone nightmare for opposing defenses, has the ability to play all over the line of scrimmage and serve as a mismatch due to his ability to bully defensive backs lining up across him.

Like Smith in Tennessee, despite back to back 600 yard seasons, Henry was never a top option in the Los Angeles Chargers high-powered offense sharing the load with the likes of Keenan Allen, Austin Ekeler and Mike Williams. What Henry’s exact role for the Patriots is yet to be seen but expect to see a lot of 2, 12 and 22 personnel as the Patriots look to run the majority of their offense through their two big money free agents who will present matchup problems for opposing defenses and consistently open up the middle of the field.

Devin Asiasi

Devin Asiasi seems like the forgotten man in New England’s revamped tight end room. As a rookie, Asiasi had high expectations after the Patriots took him with pick 99 finally preparing for “Life after Gronk.” However, life was tough for Asiasi in year 1 as Covid-19 struck the world and the learning curve was too much for the highly touted rookie. With no OTA’s, mini-camp and pre-season, it was tough for the rookie to find his footing and the jump from college was too much for him. Tight end is a tough position to learn and make an immediate impact as a first year pro but Asiasi showed bright spots at the line of scrimmage for his impact in the run game and being able to take on blocks.

Asiasi missed an extended period of time as a rookie as he went home midway through the season after the death of his childhood best friend. Even with the acquisitions of both Henry and Smith, Asiasi may be able to carve out some sort of role for the Patriots in 2021. The Patriots will prepare for a lot of heavy sets and with Henry and Smith having injury concerns in the past, Asiasi can slot in as a reliable TE2 in a room loaded with playmaking ability.

Dalton Keene

Set up for failure and given few chances to prove himself as a valuable piece to the roster, the 2021 offseason is set to be monumental for Dalton Keene’s future with the Patriots. His disappointing first 14 months started with a draft reach, where Keene was selected about 100 picks higher than many anticipated, and was paired with a COVID restricted offseason that limited the growth that he very clearly needed. Mix in a few injuries and you’ve got yourself a devastating start to an NFL career. The only question there is to answer, is how can they rectify it?

Well, it starts with kiboshing the idea that he is a traditional inline tight end, because he’s anything but. Keene is a Swiss Army Knife that played in-line, at wingback, from the slot, and at fullback during his time at Virginia Tech. Now obviously he can’t just wake up and do all of those things for a notoriously complex offense, but what he can do is latch onto a few concepts and be used as a versatile piece inside them. As a raw prospect, he is much better suited to undergo a hard reset, than continue down the path that he’s already on. We’ve seen throughout this offseason that the Patriots aren’t scared to try something new, maybe they’ll start with the man that a certain genius anointed “Josh McDaniels’ version of Kyle Juszczyk.”

Matt LaCosse

After opting out of the 2020 season and being the team’s top option at the position in 2019, Lacosse will look to crack the 53 man roster in a crowded tight-end group. Lacosse lacked production in 2019 as he hauled in just thirteen catches for a 131 yards. After the Patriots spent two picks in the 2020 draft on Asiasi and Keene, Lacosse would have been looked at as a veteran last year to help those two get up to speed. However, after his opt out, the big money signings of Smith and Henry and Asiasi and Keene being on rookie contracts, Lacosse is a long shot to make the Patriots 53 man roster out of training camp.

Troy Fumagalli

Fumagalli is a project piece. The former Bronco has had an uneventful few seasons in the league that have included more practice squad stints than touchdown catches. His margin for error is extremely thin, and to make this roster, he’ll need to have an extraordinary summer. Crazier things have happened but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Can Devin Asiasi carve out a consistent role?

This is one of the more intriguing and underrated stories of the off-season. With the Patriots running heavy ‘12’ and ‘22’ personnel this season, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry will be on the field for just about every snap. However, Asiasi shined in mini-camp and reportedly looked much smoother as a receiver in terms of his route running. Asiasi may find some time on the field to give Henry or Smith a breather but will likely serve as a depth piece in case one of Smith or Henry miss time due to injury. If Devin Asiasi is your TE3 heading into the year, you have to feel pretty good about your room at that position.

When will we see the return of the two tight end sets?

It seems rather obvious that the Patriots had ‘12’ and ‘22’ personnel in mind this past offseason. After all, they did go out and sign the top two free agent tight ends on the market. The question is, when they’ll decide to implement it.

It all depends on the health of those two new tight ends. We’ve already seen a limited Jonnu Smith during minicamp, and Hunter Henry’s injury history is nothing to scoff at. If the two are active week one, I’d fully expect the team to open the season with both on the field. If one or both of them finds themselves sidelined on opening day, it could take the team a while to find a consistent rhythm in that personnel grouping. Especially with the bevy of running backs and receivers that will be competing for time on the field.

How many tight ends will the team carry on its initial roster?

It’s certainly a hard group to project outside of Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Devin Asiasi due to the uncertainty of what Dalton Keene and Jakob Johnson’s roles will be. Keene, who is wanted by many to be the Kyle Juszczyk of the Patriots offense, will be interesting to see how the team utilizes him this summer. With Smith, Henry and Asiasi locked into the Patriots 53 man roster, Keene and Johnson will have to battle it out at fullback and shine at their limited reps at tight end in the pre-season to make the team.

What does the future look like at the position?

The Patriots have an opportunity to roll three deep at tight end for the next three seasons. Devin Asias, Hunter Henry, and Jonnu Smith are all signed on through the 2023 season, and project to be the top three tight ends on the roster during that span. In a league full of turnover, the Patriots can now (hope to) sit back and relax on the tight end position.