Patriots

Patriots

When Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelson saw that Dalton Keene was taken by the Patriots in the third round of this year's draft, he did what many coaches do on draft weekend: He took to Twitter. 

"Toughest player I've ever seen," read the message, followed by a hashtag that if clicked resulted in a series of Sylvester Stallone photos from the 1980s.

Why "Rambo?"

"There was a time, his true sophomore season, we were at Duke," Cornelson told the Next Pats Podcast. "Threw him a screen pass, he stiff-armed about three guys, and ended up going about 60 or 70 yards for a touchdown. Hair was long at the time. Pretty good pose in the end zone. I think that's really when it took off, outside of our building, at least."

 

While Keene blazed a path to earn his blood-and-guts nickname while with the Hokies, with the Patriots he'll do what he can to fall in line and earn a role. Lucky for him, his new employers are typically looking for employees with qualities he seems to fit: Big, strong, fast, smart, tough and disciplined.

"Just a hard-working, tough, no-regard-for-his-health type guy," an AFC tight ends coach told NBC Sports Boston prior to the draft. "Does a lot. Tough. Mauls. Throws his body around. Probably a late-round guy. Not going to be anybody's No. 1, but a pretty athletic dude. Could survive as either a 'Y' or an 'F' but he's a little bit of a 'tweener. Not [Aaron] Hernandez, but better than your fullback. Not elite. A little bit stiff, but fun to watch."

 

Keene was the second of two tight ends taken by the Patriots in the third round. UCLA's Devin Asiasi was the first -- a do-it-all type with good size and first-class body control -- but the Patriots landed another versatile piece at the same position 10 picks later.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

Keene (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) checked just about every athletic box the Patriots have drafted early at the position under Bill Belichick. He clocked a 4.71 40 time, a 7.07-second three-cone, jumped 125 inches in the broad jump and 34 inches in the vertical at the combine, indicating he has a nice combination of speed and explosiveness. He also posted a remarkable 4.19-second short-shuttle (90th percentile). 

Combine those movement skills with an aggressive attitude as a blocker, big hands to suck up targets (9.75 inches), and an angry run-after-catch demeanor, and you have an intriguing talent who was used as an inline player, a slot receiver, an H-back and a fullback for the Hokies.

The question is, how will he be deployed in New England? Because his Mr. Everything role at Virginia Tech isn't something the Patriots have featured as part of their offensive attack in the past. 

"I mean, when you watch Dalton play," Belichick said following the draft, "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. That's not uncommon with other players as well. It is what it is.

"I think the things you saw him do, which was his blocking, his effort to block, his toughness, ability to make plays with the ball in his hands, and certainly the intent of the offense to get him the ball was impressive. They did a lot of things to try to get him the ball one way or another: hand it to him, throw it to him, put him in different locations so that he could run with it or catch it and run with it. That's what you saw.

"I've already talked to him about that, that it's going to be a big transition for him in terms of learning our system, being I would say more detailed, more specific on a lot of assignments, particularly in the passing game, learning how to block in close quarters. Again, he shows plenty of ability to do that in size, quickness and so forth. Just he hasn't done a lot of it. He played quite a bit in the backfield, not as a fullback, but kind of an off-the-ball, sometimes a fullback location, but not really lined up behind the quarterback, but lined in the backfield, off the lines. A little bit of a different location than what we would normally use. 

 

"He's a smart kid. He's athletic. He's strong. He's tough. I don't see any reason why he can't and won't make those adjustments in time. We'll work on it."

Keene provides Belichick and Josh McDaniels options, at least. If they want an athletic fullback who can be relied upon as a dual threat, Keene can provide. His effort in the running game certainly isn't an issue, and he offers a more dynamic receiving threat than what the Patriots have been used to at the fullback spot, averaging over 9.0 yards after the catch per reception, according to Pro Football Focus.

As a tight end, he's certainly big enough to play in-line. At the combine, he weighed six pounds more than George Kittle did at the same height three years ago. Keene's arms are shorter than Kittle's, but his hands are bigger and he had three more bench reps of 225 pounds than Kittle did.

Keene's not expected to light the football world aflame any time soon, as Kittle has. (Kittle was a fifth-round pick of the Niners in 2017, yet is now widely considered the best dual-threat tight end in football.) But it's Keene's ability to handle a variety of roles that boosts his value.

When he's on the field -- if he can handle the kind of playbook volume that'll make him a legitimate Swiss Army knife option -- teams will have to determine how they'll match Keene. 

Is he an angry blocking tight end or a sledgehammer fullback who'll encourage defensive coordinators to deploy an extra linebacker on the field? Is he a big slot receiver who'll demand a safety in coverage, as many tight ends in today's NFL do?

Are the Patriots in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) with Keene and Asiasi on the field together, or is it really 21 personnel because Keene is aligned behind the quarterback as an I-formation lead-blocker? Or is it really "11" because Asiasi can run short-area routes like a receiver and it's Keene who's the true tight end? Is it "02" (no backs, two tight ends) that suddenly becomes "11" because Keene shifts from a wing position at the end of the line of scrimmage into the backfield as a lone tailback?

Teams study personnel groupings and tendencies. Defenses can get a bead on what might be coming just based on the players in the offensive huddle and their opponent's play-calling history. But with a player like Keene, the Patriots can play with those tendencies and muddy the waters if he doesn't have a well-defined position. 

Keene might not be Hernandez, as one AFC tight ends coach pointed out. Hernandez was shorter and lighter but more sudden than Keene. Yet Keene was a high school quarterback. He has some running back experience. He took 11 carries for Virginia Tech last season. He could, potentially, be used in a similar multi-faceted fashion just to keep the competition honest.

 

Utilizing Keene in hurry-up situations might be particularly beneficial for the Patriots, getting vulnerable defensive personnel on the field and then changing Keene's jobs on the fly to hit an opponent where it's weakest. 

Match him with a linebacker? The Patriots could flex him out snap after snap as part of a quick-hitting passing attack. Match him with a defensive back? He can pop into the backfield and play fullback or take the football himself. 

Take this Patriots drive, the game-opener from the 2011 Divisional Round, as an example of what a versatile tight end can mean to an offense. 

Against the Broncos, the Patriots came out with 12 personnel on the field, aligning Hernandez in the backfield as a fullback. Denver countered with their nickel personnel (five defensive backs), and the Patriots passed for a gain of eight yards. It was "12." It looked like "21." The Broncos handled it like "11."

One snap later, with the same grouping, Hernandez aligned in the slot. The Broncos kept the same personnel on the field as well, and the Patriots ran against the lighter package. Gain of five. It was "12," but it looked like "11." The Broncos handled it like "11" and were exploited. 

Then the Patriots made an interesting change. They didn't huddle, but they swapped out running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for receiver Julian Edelman. It was a rare "02" personnel package with three wideouts and two tight ends. 

The Broncos still had three corners on the field -- one for each receiver -- but they matched the tight ends with linebackers. With Hernandez next to him in the shotgun as a back, Tom Brady flicked one to Rob Gronkowski for 17 yards. It was "02," but it looked like "11" and it left Denver scrambling to match up properly with New England's talented tight ends. 

Once again, the Patriots didn't huddle. Once again, Hernandez aligned in the backfield, this time with Brady under center. The Broncos, still reeling at the pace, kept their three-corner nickel package on the field but were late to align. The Patriots ran it at the "sub" look, with Hernandez taking the handoff for 43 yards.

The Patriots hurried to the line again. They'd chewed up 73 yards in 1:45 seconds. From the Denver eight-yard line, they went five-wide with Hernandez and Gronkowski on opposite sides of the formation in the slot. Brady found Wes Welker over the middle for a touchdown. 

In less than two minutes, with a variety of looks, the Patriots traveled 80 yards in less than two minutes and took the lead in a game they eventually won, 45-10. Hernandez carried five times that day for 61 yards and caught four passes for 55 more yards. 

 

Is that the kind of stat line that Keene will be able to replicate in New England? Maybe not. But even if he simply puts some doubt into the minds of defenses as to where he'll line up or what task he'll carry out, that in and of itself can be a game-changer. 

Belichick sent two fourth-rounders (No. 125 and 129) plus a future sixth-rounder (2021) -- the first time he traded a future pick during the draft in his tenure as head coach of the Patriots -- to land selection No. 101, where he plucked Keene. And he sent it all to the Jets. 

To make that kind of move, Belichick must have had a role in mind for Keene. Maybe several.