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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Can Devin Asiasi make the second-year jump after a difficult rookie season?

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: TE Hunter Henry

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

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

The team currently has 87 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 Devin Asiasi.

Hard facts

Name: Devin Asiasi

Position: Tight end

Jersey number: 86

Opening day age: 24

Size: 6-foot-3, 260 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? A four-star recruit out of high school who played on both offense and defense, Asiasi was the number three tight end in the country when he enrolled at the University of Michigan in 2016. His tenure with the Wolverines lasted all but one year, though: Asiasi did appear in all 13 games as a true freshman — catching two passes for 18 yards and one touchdown — but he decided to transfer back to his home state and join UCLA. The move forced him to sit out the 2017 season under the NCAA’s transfer rules.

In his first year with the Bruins, Asiasi played a backup role (he also was forced to sit out three games due to a team suspension) before earning the starting tight end position in 2019. All in all, he registered 50 catches for 771 yards and five touchdowns in two seasons at UCLA before deciding to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft. Asiasi eventually heard his name called when the Patriots selected him in the third round, but he saw limited action in his first year as a professional.

What did his 2020 season look like? The Patriots traded up on the second day of the draft to bring Asiasi on board, sending third-, fourth-, and fifth-round selections to the Las Vegas Raiders in return for a fifth-rounder and the third-round pick at No. 91 overall that eventually was used to acquire the tight end. While he was coming off the best season of his collegiate career and joined a team devoid of quality tight end talent, Asiasi’s first season with the organization was a challenging one almost from start to finish.

Not only did a lack of traditional offseason workouts and preseason due to the league’s Coronavirus rules 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. Together with two additional game-day inactivities, Asiasi appeared in only nine games during his first year as a pro: seeing rotational action behind starting tight end Ryan Izzo and not emerging until late in the year, he was on the field for 213 of 1,011 offensive snaps (21.1%).

Primarily an in-line tight end, Asiasi saw most of his action as a blocker in the Patriots’ run-first offense. He was used to either run-block or pass-protect on a combined 127 of his snaps, for a rate of 59.6 percent. But even when the team asked him to go on routes, he hardly ever saw the football come his way: he was not targeted until New England’s Week 14 matchup versus the Los Angeles Rams, and did not catch his first pass until the regular season finale against the New York Jets.

That game was undoubtably the high-point of Asiasi’s first year as a Patriot. Not only did he play 54 percent of the team’s offensive snaps that day (his second highest playing time share after the 94 percent he saw the previous week), he also caught two passes on three targets for a combined 39 receiving yards — including a 26-yard touchdown. Asiasi was therefore able to end a difficult first season in the NFL on a high note.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Asiasi is an all-around tight end, who can play a versatile role for the Patriots offense. He can serve as both an in-line option and also has the upside as a blocker and receiver to succeed as a Y-tight end as well. However, with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry added to the mix in free agency, the expectation is that he will play only a backup role in his second season in New England: Asiasi projects as a TE3, who will be used as depth behind the starters and a package-specific player.

What is his special teams value? The Patriots’ tight end position underwent a philosophical shift in 2019 and saw only minimal usage in the kicking game from that point on. Injuries may have played a role in this, though, which is why it would not be surprising to see Asiasi get some looks on special teams this year after seeing none in 2020. He could play as an additional blocker on field goal and extra point attempts and also be used as a front-line protector on punt coverage teams.

Does he have positional versatility? Asiasi already displayed some good flexibility during his time at UCLA, and the Patriots built on this last season despite the challenging circumstances. The 24-year-old was moved around the formation from an in-line spot (150 snaps), to the slot (46), to the even the perimeter on select occasions (17). Along the way, he showed that he can be an every-down option as a blocker in both running and passing situations.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second season of the four-year rookie deal he signed with the Patriots last spring, Asiasi will hit the team’s salary cap with $1.04 million this year. The contract’s structure itself is pretty straight forward: the young tight end carries a $818,310 salary as well as fully-guaranteed $223,240 signing bonus proration. In the unlikely case of a release, only that proration would remain on New England’s books for the 2021 season.

What is his roster outlook? Even though he played only a marginal role for the Patriots last year, Asiasi can be considered a safe bet to be on the roster in 2021. After all, he still has plenty of upside to work with and could be a valuable member of the tight end room behind projected starters Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — especially considering the latter’s significant injury history. Asiasi will likely not be a starter until he has to, but he should have a spot on the team nonetheless.