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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: After two quiet seasons, Matt LaCosse is very much on the roster bubble

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: TE Jonnu Smith

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

With training camp and preseason underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 91 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 are taking 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 Matt LaCosse.

Hard facts

Name: Matt LaCosse

Position: Tight end

Jersey number: 83

Opening day age: 28

Size: 6-foot-6, 255 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? After posting comparatively pedestrian numbers over his four years at the University of Illinois, LaCosse did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2015 draft. Instead, he had to go the free agency route to find a pro-level team and ended up signing with the New York Giants — kicking off a tumultuous three-year stint. LaCosse was twice waived due to injury, had a six-day interlude with the New York Jets, spent time on the Giants’ practice squad, and caught three passes for 22 yards in five games.

LaCosse found more success after getting picked up by the Denver Broncos late during the 2017 season. He earned the number two tight end role the following summer and went on to appear in 15 games for his new club, setting career-highs in catches (24), receiving yards (250) and touchdowns (1) while seeing regular action on offense and special teams for the first time in his career. Nevertheless, Denver declined to offer him a restricted free agency tender in 2019 — allowing him to enter the open market and eventually join the Patriots.

In two seasons in New England so far, LaCosse has been relatively quiet. Appearing in 11 games — all during the 2019 season — he caught 13 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. In total, he has therefore played 33 games over the course of his six-year career, registering 40 catches for 403 yards and a pair of scores.

What did his 2020 season look like? LaCosse served as the Patriots top tight end alongside Benjamin Watson in 2019. With the veteran off to retirement, and with third-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene facing a challenging transition to the NFL due to the league’s Coronavirus restrictions, he again was in line for considerable playing time heading into his second year in the New England system. However, the pandemic changed his outlook heading into the summer of 2020 and he ended up not playing for the team at all.

LaCosse was among a league-high eight Patriots to exercise his right to opt out of the season due to concerns about the virus. He subsequently sat out the entire year. A voluntary opt-out, LaCosse received a $150,000 stipend and saw the two-year contract he originally had signed one year earlier toll into 2021. The veteran tight end therefore remained signed with the Patriots instead of becoming an unrestricted free agent following the 2020 campaign.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? While far from on the same level as ex-Patriot Rob Gronkowski, LaCosse plays a similar role as the future Hall of Famer once did: he is an all-around tight end who has shown he can be used both as a receiver and pass protector and also serve as a blocker in the running game. He had his fair share of issues in both areas during his lone full season in New England, but his skillset should allow him to be used in such a way within the team’s offensive system.

What is his special teams value? LaCosse has been a non-factor on special teams ever since his arrival in New England in 2019, but he does have some experience in the game’s third phase stemming from his time with the Broncos in 2018: Denver used him on all four coverage teams and he was on the field for 102 of a possible 446 kicking game snaps (22.9%) that year. While the Patriots’ preseason opener against Washington again did not see him play any kicking game snaps, he has some experience in this area.

Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, LaCosse has the skillset to serve as an all-around option at the tight end position for the Patriots even though he did not quite show it during the 2019 season. That means that he could line up all over the formation — from playing in-line, to being moved to the slot or flexed out onto the perimeter, to aligning in the backfield in a fullback role. The 28-year-old already did all that during his first season in New England, and should be expected to be used in similar fashion in 2021 as well.

What is his salary cap situation? When LaCosse opted out of the 2020 season, his contract tolled into the next year. Instead of entering unrestricted free agency in March, he therefore remained under contract with the Patriots for one more season. This year, he is on the team’s books with a salary cap number of $1.43 million. Given that only his remaining signing bonus proration of $150,000 is fully guaranteed, however, New England could save most of his cap number by releasing him.

What is his roster outlook? While LaCosse is one of only three Patriots to actually return off the Coronavirus opt-out list — the others being linebacker Dont’a Hightower and running back Brandon Bolden — he is no lock to stay on the roster into the regular season. Quite the opposite, actually: he is very much on the roster bubble after two quiet seasons. Can he earn a depth role behind Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, and alongside Devin Asiasi? He needs to show more than he did in 2019 to do that even. And while Dalton Keene getting sent to injured reserve should help him, LaCosse will find himself on the outside looking in if he cannot convince the team to keep a fourth tight end over another wide receiver or running back.