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Patriots 2021 training camp competitions to watch: Third tight end

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New England Patriots Practice Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Ever since they selected him in the second round of the NFL’s 2010 draft, Rob Gronkowski served as the undisputed leader of the New England Patriots’ tight end depth chart and one of the most dynamic and dominant weapons in all of football. When he announced his (temporary) retirement during the 2019 offseason, the Patriots therefore lost one of their offensive focal points and a player who was capable of making game-changing plays no matter the situation or opponent.

Losing the future Hall of Famer was a blow to a unit that it has not recovered from since. The Patriots fielded one of the worst tight end groups in football in both 2019, and even after investing a pair of third-round draft choices last offseason were unable to turn their fortunes around. In total, the unit finished with just 18 receptions in 2020 for a combined 254 yards and one touchdown.

Needless to say that changes needed to be made — and they were. The Patriots, who entered this year’s offseason among the league leaders in salary cap space, brought the top two tight ends available on the open market aboard: Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were both signed to multi-year contracts to serve as the one-two punch at a significantly upgraded position.

With those two on the roster, the question now becomes who will earn a spot on the roster alongside them.

The competitors

TE Devin Asiasi, TE Dalton Keene, TE Matt LaCosse, TE Troy Fumagalli, FB Jakob Johnson

The majority of the Patriots’ tight end production last season was put up by Ryan Izzo, but he has since been traded to the Houston Texans. That leaves second-year men Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene as the only holdovers from the 2020 season at the position, and they will compete for the third tight end role against two veterans: Matt LaCosse and Troy Fumagalli.

LaCosse originally arrived in New England during the post-Gronkowski offseason of 2019. After a disappointing first season in the system during which he struggled with injuries and registered just 13 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown, LaCosse decided to opt out of the 2020 campaign.

Fumagalli, meanwhile, joined the Patriots in May and participated in the team’s offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp. Having spent the first three years of his NFL career with the Denver Broncos and the Texans, Fumagalli offers experience but little production: he has played in 19 games and has caught 14 passes for 118 yards and a pair of touchdowns so far.

As for the fifth player listed above, he could also factor into the decision. Johnson aligned primarily in the backfield in his first season as New England’s fullback, but he also was used in-line or split out wide on occasion. The team might opt to carry only three traditional tight ends and himself on their roster, which is why he too is listed here.

The deciding factors

Positional versatility: New England puts a premium on versatility, and the tight end position is a perfect example for that. The players need to be able to contribute in the passing game and as blockers, and they also have to show their value on special teams or by being able to line up all over the formation. Fullback/tight end hybrid James Develin did this as well as anybody, and the aforementioned Jakob Johnson or second-year man Dalton Keene could make other players on the current roster expendable if they are not also able to wear multiple hats.

Blocking technique: Today’s NFL is filled with tight ends that are outstanding pass catchers but lack the technique to also be successful as run blockers or pass protectors — all the things Rob Gronkowski used to do at an absurdly high level. The Patriots want their tight ends to be able to block as well, however, which is why the five men listed above need to be consistent and fundamentally sound in this part of the game. Neither Asiasi nor Keene were overly convincing in this area last year, and they will therefore need to show some strides.

Quarterback chemistry: While it remains to be seen who wins the quarterback competition this summer — incumbent Cam Newton will fight against first-round rookie Mac Jones — the tight ends on the roster will have to develop some chemistry with them. That includes reading coverages properly to make the right decisions on option routes, and being in the same location the quarterback expects them to be. If a tight end can’t develop that chemistry and earn the passers’ trust, his tenure in New England will likely be a short one.

Physicality and durability: Tight ends have to show a physical edge if they want to be successful with the Patriots. Not only will they face their fair share of press-man coverage, they also need to be able to move bodies in the running game and when called upon as pass protectors. Bringing the right mindset to the table and not being afraid to either take a hit or finish a block is key here. The same goes for being able to stay on the field — something Asiasi, Keene and LaCosse struggled with since arriving in New England.

Deep receiving skills: While the tight ends usually run their fair share of slants and other short to medium in-breaking routes in the Patriots’ system, they also need to be able to get down the field and win one-on-one matchups if need be. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry have already shown an ability to do just that, but the rotational options also need to prove themselves in this area.

The prediction

With Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry both already locked into their spots on the roster, the Patriots will have to decide how many tight ends they will carry on their 53-man squad come the regular season. Training camp and preseason performance will obviously play a big role in this process, but it seems likely that they will keep at least three players regardless of whether or not fullback Jakob Johnson makes the team as well.

Based on his draft status and the promise he showed at times in 2020, Devin Asiasi should be seen as the favorite to earn that TE3 role. The UCLA product did not put up impressive numbers last season — he caught just two passes on seven targets for 39 yards and a score — but he appeared to adjust better to life in the NFL than fellow rookie Dalton Keene. Accordingly, Asiasi should be able to make the cut.

As for Keene and the other two tight ends named above, they might have to convince the team to keep another player the position over an additional one at wide receiver. For Keene to do that, he will have to take advantage of his versatile skillset and given his history as an H-back maybe even challenge Johnson for the fullback role. If he can do that, or take another significant jump in Year 2, he should be able to make the team as well.

LaCosse and especially Fumagalli, on the other hand, appear to have only outside chances at making the team. While the former could take advantage of his experience in the system to push Keene off the roster, Fumagalli making the 53-man squad would be a major surprise given the competition he faces.