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Patriots 2022 roster breakdown: Dalton Keene faces a make-or-break training camp

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: The time is now for J.J. Taylor

NFL: JUN 07 New England Patriots Minicamp Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror and training camp set to kick off later this month, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2022.”

The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.

Today, the series continues with third-year tight end Dalton Keene.

Hard facts

Name: Dalton Keene

Position: Tight end

Jersey number: 44

Opening day age: 23

Size: 6-foot-4, 250 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)


What is his experience? Keene arrived in the NFL as a third-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2020, but a series of injuries limited him to only six games over the course of his rookie and sophomore seasons. Playing 140 offensive snaps, he caught three passes for 16 yards and also fumbled once. Despite his experience at the professional level being comparatively limited, Keene does have a lot of competitive football on his résumé stemming from his time in college: 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 2021 season look like? Keene had a rather disappointing rookie campaign in the NFL in 2020, and his second season did not go any better; quite the opposite, actually. Not only did the Patriots make some major offseason investments to improve their tight end group — signing both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry to multi-year free agency deals — Keene himself was once again hampered by injuries and as a result unable to make the famous second-year jump and finally start living up to his draft status.

His issues already started during the offseason, when he was a limited participant in two of three mandatory minicamp practices. Keene was then placed on the physically unable to perform list before training camp, which would have given him an opportunity to return at any point. He never did: the Patriots sent him from PUP to injured reserve in early August after he reportedly underwent meniscus surgery. His season therefore came to an end before it even really began, and without any in-game or even practice appearances.

2022 preview

What is his projected role? If the offseason workout program is any indication, Keene is currently the fourth option on New England’s tight end depth chart. The aforementioned Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry are the clear leaders of the bunch, with fellow 2020 third-round draft choice Devin Asiasi ahead of Keene as well. The 23-year-old has some theoretical value due to his ability to play multiple spots as a move tight end, but he has yet to show it and therefore improve his standing in the pecking order.

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 the Patriots’ new-look offensive staff plans to employ him after he was used mostly as a traditional in-line tight end during his lone semi-healthy season in 2020.

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: the position combined to play just 61 snaps in the game’s third phase last season, for example. Looking ahead, Keene should therefore not be expected to see plenty of action in the kicking game. Him being able to carve out a consistent role would boost his chances of making the team, though.

What is his salary cap situation? Entering the third year of his rookie contract, Keene carries a salary cap number of $1.17 million that is split up between his salary ($965,000) as well as his signing bonus proration ($208,073). With the Virginia Tech product currently qualifying for Top-51 status, the Patriots would create some cap savings in case of a trade or release: his salary would come off the team’s books in either scenario, with his signing bonus turning into dead cap.

How safe is his roster spot? Coming off a quiet rookie year that was followed by a year-long stint on injured reserve, Keene finds himself in a do-or-die situation heading towards training camp. He has some intriguing potential as an H-back to possibly fill the shoes previously worn by fullback Jakob Johnson, but needs to a) get on the field and stay there consistently, and b) showcase his value on offense and possibly special teams relative to other fringe roster skill position players. There are questions whether or not he can do that.

One-sentence projection: Keene will not be able to suddenly turn his career around and become a serious TE3 behind Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, resulting in him getting the axe on roster cutdown day and later rejoining New England via its practice squad.