Patriots

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.

Bill Belichick confident in Patriots' safety protocols despite opt-outs

Bill Belichick confident in Patriots' safety protocols despite opt-outs

The New England Patriots already have had eight players opt out of the 2020 NFL season, and few would blame Bill Belichick -- the oldest head coach in the league at 68 -- if he made a similar decision.

So, did concerns about COVID-19 lead Belichick to consider not coaching in 2020? It doesn't appear so.

"I feel very good about the environment that we're in," Belichick said Friday in a video conference with reporters. "I feel fine."

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Belichick also confirmed no coaches on his staff have backed out of the 2020 season.

The Patriots are in the "acclimation period" of training camp, with players going through non-padded walk-throughs outside Gillette Stadium as they ramp up for their first padded practice on Aug. 17.

According to Belichick, the players and staff in the building feel confident in their safety so far.

"I can't speak for everybody, but I think my impression is that as an organization, as a coaching staff, the support people, the players -- there's a comfort level with what we're doing and who's doing it and how we're doing it, and we're being productive," Belichick said.

"So, if concerns or problems come up, then we'll address those. But right now, I think it's a good working environment. We're getting a lot done."

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The Patriots, like every other team, have to follow rigorous safety protocols that include frequent COVID-19 tests, temperature checks and physical distancing measures. That "new normal" will take some getting used to, but Belichick believes the protocols have helped create an environment that coaches and staff feel safe in.

"The organization has taken a lot of steps to ensure everyone's safety and opportunity to do their job and do it safely and do it productively," Belichick said. 

"Certainly there's a lot of responsibility on each one of us to do things in a way that doesn't affect others negatively, that we take the proper precautions that we can and should, so that's what we're doing."

Mohamed Sanu shouts out Cam Newton in Patriots practice Instagram post

Mohamed Sanu shouts out Cam Newton in Patriots practice Instagram post

Mohamed Sanu finally doesn't have to fly across the country to work out with his new quarterback.

The New England Patriots began Phase 1 of training camp this week by hitting the practice field as a team outside Gillette Stadium.

That means Cam Newton joined his Patriots teammates in an official capacity for the first time, and Sanu seems pretty excited about having his new quarterback in the building.

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Here's the Instagram shout-out Sanu gave Newton Thursday on Instagram via a photo of the two in Patriots gear at training camp:

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Beannnn & Ace booogie wit da hoodie

A post shared by Mohamed Sanu Sr. (@mohamedsanu) on

Sanu and Newton teamed up for informal throwing sessions in Los Angeles just days after the 31-year-old quarterback signed with the Patriots in free agency and appeared to develop a strong connection.

Like Newton, Sanu has a lot to prove this season after an ankle injury plagued his 2019 campaign with New England. The 30-year-old sprained his ankle in his second game with the Patriots last season after a midseason trade from the Atlanta Falcons and caught three passes or fewer in his final six games of the season.

Sanu projects to be the Patriots' No. 2 wide receiver this season behind Julian Edelman, so if he can stay healthy, he could go a long way in helping Newton and the Patriots finding success this season despite a wave of player opt-outs.