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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Dalton Keene needs to show progress not to get lost on a deep tight end depth chart

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: LB Rashod Berry

NFL: OCT 25 49ers at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the offseason workout program and mandatory minicamp in the books, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series continues with tight end Dalton Keene.

Hard facts

Name: Dalton Keene

Position: Tight end

Jersey number: 44

Opening day age: 22

Size: 6-foot-4, 250 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Keene arrived in the NFL as a third-round draft pick by the Patriots last spring. Despite his early-round draft status, a series of injuries limited him to only six games during his rookie season. His experience at the professional level is therefore comparatively limited. That being said, 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 production can best be described as mediocre, and he never managed to get consistent looks.

What did his 2020 season look like? In order to bring Keene aboard in the 2020 draft, the Bill Belichick-led Patriots made their first ever trade with the New York Jets: New England two fourth-rounders as well as a 2021 sixth-round choice to New York in order to move up to the 101st overall pick and grab Keene. The youngster, just like the rest of the team’s rookie class, joined a challenging situation: the Coronavirus pandemic forced the NFL to drastically alter its offseason and summer training program.

Keene’s lack of a traditional offseason put him in an unfavorable position to begin with, and a series of injuries further contributed to him playing just a limited role all year long. The rookie started the season sidelined due to a neck injury and was a healthy scratch for three additional games before his debut against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7 — a game that saw him play the first 31 snaps of his career and finish with one 8-yard reception. His limited output was a sign of things to come.

Keene failed to establish a set role in the offense early on during the season, and went back to inactivity after his debut: a knee injury forced him to miss a pair of games before he was sent to injured reserve. Keene did not see the field again until the Patriots’ final five contests of the season. In total, he therefore ended his rookie campaign with six in-game appearances as well as 140 of a possible 1,011 snaps on the offensive side of the ball (13.8%). He furthermore added seven snaps in the kicking game (of 399; 1.8%).

Serving as the third tight end behind Ryan Izzo and Devin Asiasi for most of the season, Keene’s statistical output reflected his standing on the depth chart. Quarterbacks went 3-for-5 when targeting him in the passing game, and he gained just 16 total yards through the air. Playing a rather traditional in-line role on most of his snaps, he did see plenty of action as a blocker, though: Keene was used as a run blocker or pass protector on 61 of his snaps. He gave up one quarterback hurry in 11 snaps as a pass blocker.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? The Patriots completely overhauled their tight end position this offseason: Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were added in free agency, with Ryan Izzo traded to the Houston Texans. Where Keene fits on the depth chart remains to be seen, but at the moment he projects as the fourth option behind Smith, Henry and fellow second-year man Devin Asiasi. That said, Keene has some value due to his theoretical ability to play multiple spots as a move tight end.

What is his special teams value? Keene received only seven special teams snaps as a rookie in 2020, and was used exclusively on the kick return unit. However, this output was par for the course for New England’s tight ends: in 2019, for example, the position combined to play just 13 snaps in the game’s third phase. Looking ahead, Keene should therefore not be expected to see plenty of action in the kicking game but him being able to carve out a consistent role would certainly boost his chances of making the team.

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. He proved himself a matchup-specific chess piece in college despite his limited production, and it will be interesting to see how Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels plans to employ him after using him mostly as a traditional in-line tight end in 2020.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second year of his rookie contract, Keene carries a salary cap number of $1.02 million that is split up between his salary ($814,518) as well as his signing bonus proration ($208,073). With Keene currently qualifying for Top-51 status, the Patriots could create some cap savings in case of a trade or release: his salary would come off the team’s books in either scenario. That said, his contract itself is still on the cheaper side when compared to some of his teammates.

What is his roster outlook? With the Patriots investing considerable resources in their tight end position in free agency, Keene now needs to show some progress not to get lost on a suddenly deep depth chart. Whether or not he will be able to do that remains to be seen, but getting fully healthy after being on-again/off-again during the offseason would be a first step. If able to do that, Keene should be in a position to compete for a rotational role alongside Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry and Devin Asiasi, and possibly also challenge Jakob Johnson for the fullback role. Then again, New England will likely not shy away from cutting ties with him if he fails to properly develop after an already disappointing rookie season.