Back in 2017, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was a guest speaker at the Ohio State coaching clinic. One of the issues he discussed was the characteristics he was looking for in his players.
Belichick mentioned three of them in particular: toughness, smarts, dependability.
“Tough — mentally and physically. Smart — good decisions, good football understanding, high football IQ. Dependable — critical situations, you can count on those players to perform under pressure,” he said at the time.
“You can count on those players to execute what you want to execute as a team. The tougher the game, the more critical the game, the more important the situation, the more I want the tough, smart, dependable player in the game, in the eye of the storm, making a decision that needs to be made for us to win.”
One trait Belichick did not mention was talent. Obviously it is the baseline for every player to make it to the NFL level, but talent alone can only get you so far when everybody around you is good as well (and, make no mistake, everybody in the league is good even if the results do oftentimes not reflect it).
This is where those three traits come in, and they are why pre-draft evaluation can be tricky. A player can have all the talent in the world but for one reason or another never live up to his potential because he lacks in other areas.
Dalton Keene, who was waived by the Patriots on Sunday, is a prime example of that.
Keene entered the league as the 101st overall selection in the 2020 draft, with New England trading up in the third round to bring the Virginia Tech tight end on board. He was considered a reach when compared to the media-based evaluation before the draft, but his skillset and talent were enticing and prompted the Patriots to make a move.
“Kind of an interesting guy, underclassman,” then-Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said at the time. “Really played, essentially from Day 1. A three-year starter. Really had to search for some things with him on tape. He took advantage of his opportunities. A couple of things that stood out were just some of his catch-and-run type plays. Good size, 6-4 and change, call it 255, 260. Fairly athletic, tough kid, smart kid. Was asked to do a number of different things in their offense.”
Toughness? Check. Smarts? Check. Dependability? Well...
When Keene arrived in New England the belief was that he might one day will the F-tight end spot opposite the more well-rounded Devin Asiasi, another player on the roster bubble this summer. Pats Pulpit’s own Michael McDermott expressed those thoughts in his post-draft analysis of the selection:
Keene has the versatility to not only perform as a move tight end, but also line up as a fullback and be a lead blocker in I-formation plays when the Patriots want to assert themselves in the run game. He also gives Josh McDaniels a movable chess piece to force the defense to tip its hand and could give quarterback Jarrett Stidham a bigger edge in the pre-snap phase of the game.
The possibilities seemed endless, and Keene appeared to be a high-upside player despite a relative lack of opportunities in college. And yet, he never came anywhere close to becoming a valuable member of the Patriots offense.
Dependability was the main issue.
During his 2020 rookie campaign, he missed time due to a neck issue and later was placed on injured reserve because of a knee injury. He eventually returned late during the year but was unable to make much of an impact.
His sophomore season did not go any better. 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: he started training camp on the physically unable to perform list and was later sent to injured reserve in early August after undergoing meniscus surgery.
Year 3 was more of the same, with Keene missing practice time yet again due to injury. As a result, he was now let go by the team.
His tenure in New England has therefore come to an end with a mere 140 offensive snaps on his résumé. He caught three passes for 16 yards and fumbled once.
Maybe talent was the issue after all. Maybe toughness and smarts contributed as well, those are hard to measure from outside the organization.
What cannot be denied, though, is that Keene’s dependability was a major issue.