After double-dipping at the tight end position in the 2020 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots did not exactly get the results they were hoping for. So much to the extent that just one season later they dished out over $50 million in guaranteed money to Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in free agency.
With Smith and Henry planted atop the depth chart, the 2020 tight ends (Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene) will be left battling for the third tight end spot throughout training camp. While Asiasi may appear to enter the competition with the upper hand, do not sleep on Keene making a surge for the job.
The former Virginia Tech Hokies’ NFL career has not been one to write home about. In two seasons in New England, injuries have limited Keene to just six career games. In those six contests he has posted a measly three receptions for 16 yards, topping it all off with a lost fumble. But after a disappointing rookie campaign in the NFL in 2020 and missing all of last year on the injured reserve, 2022 may be the perfect time for Keene to reverse his path.
Throughout his three-year collegiate career, Keene’s versatility was perhaps his best attribute. In 39 career games at Virginia Tech, Keene aligned everywhere from an in-line tight end, in the slot, out wide, and even in numerous spots in the backfield for the Hokies.
As the Patriots moved on from fullback Jakob Johnson this offseason, it was a sign of an offensive shift. That shift was confirmed by Johnson, who stated the team informed him they would no longer be using a traditional fullback within their offense this season.
While Johnson excelled in his role, his spot on the field often made New England’s offense one dimensional. Instead, a versatile offensive threat like Keene could leave opposing defenses on their toes.
The door opens even wider for Keene as the Patriots offense reportedly took on a new look throughout minicamp and OTAs — with glimpses of Kyle Shanahan’s offense peaking through. One of the key cogs of Shanahan’s offense in San Francisco is Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has a similar skill set as Keene himself.
The 49ers often use Juszczyk — and versatile tight end George Kittle — in the run game to help set up their play-action passing attack. In the clip below, the Niners use a play-action fullback lead, using Juszczyk’s skillset to strike a wheel route for a solid gain.
If New England plans to deploy similar tactics, Keene showed at times in college he is a physical and capable lead blocker. If he is able to hold up as a run blocker, it would allow the Patriots to set up play-action concepts (like the one above) to get Keene the ball in space.
Getting the ball to Keene in space is perhaps the most exciting part of his game. Virginia Tech often got Keene involved through screens from either the tight end spot or out of the backfield , something the 49ers often do with Juszczyk or Kittle. Keene would then be able to showcase his strong yards after the catch skills, where he earned his nickname ‘Rambo’ for his physicality.
Coming into the league two years ago, Keene was considered to be a project due to the limited route tree he ran at Virginia Tech. It was something Bill Belichick even noted himself after selecting the tight end in the third-round.
“When you watch Dalton play, you just don’t see a lot of things that we do. The Virginia Tech offense didn’t really translate too much to a New England Patriot offense,” Belichick said in his post-draft press conference.
While Keene has barely seen the field in two years, it will be interesting to see how he’s developed spending two years with the club.
Now healthy, Keene may not be here to save the offense single-handily — especially as he first needs to prove he can just stay on the field. If he can do that, his versatility and skill set certainly makes him an intriguing piece of the puzzle as training camp is set to begin.