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.

Patriots fans may bristle at Chris Jones' reaction to Chiefs extension

Patriots fans may bristle at Chris Jones' reaction to Chiefs extension

Did the 2001 New England Patriots believe they were launching a dynasty after winning Super Bowl XXXVI? Probably not.

But the defending Super Bowl champions appear a bit more confident.

Days after signing quarterback Patrick Mahomes to the richest contract in North American sports, the Kansas City Chiefs agreed to a four-year, $85 million contract extension with defensive tackle Chris Jones, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday.

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So, how did Jones celebrate his new deal with Kansas City? By declaring an apparent continuation of the Chiefs' "dynasty."

Jones has every reason to be confident in his team, which kept its core intact after winning Super Bowl LIV and is the current Super Bowl LV favorite.

But Patriots fans who watched Bill Belichick and Tom Brady lead New England to six championships over two decades might view Jones' "dynasty" talk as premature.

After all, no team has won back-to-back titles since the Patriots in 2003 and 2004, and no team aside from New England and Seattle (2013 and 2014) has even reached the Super Bowl in back-to-back years since 2000.

And after signing Cam Newton, the Patriots may believe their own dynasty isn't dead yet despite Brady's departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

History won't stop Jones and the Chiefs from setting lofty goals, however, as Mahomes said recently he's eyeing Brady's record of six Super Bowl titles. Better get started soon.

Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast: Did Pats just become Cam Newton's team? | Listen and subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Hypocrisy for Patriots fans to root for Tom Brady, but not Cam Newton

Hypocrisy for Patriots fans to root for Tom Brady, but not Cam Newton

If you rooted for Tom Brady and don’t root for Cam Newton, you are a hypocrite. 

In 2014, the Patriots started the season 2-2 and after a humiliating loss on Monday Night Football in Kansas City, some idiot — that would be me — declared that the Pats had lost their soul.

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Of course, I was wrong, as the greatest quarterback ever went on to the lead the Pats to their fourth Super Bowl win with a big assist from Malcolm Butler. 

That was Part 2 of the "Tom Brady: Me Against the World" trilogy.

Of course, the original was getting drafted as a sixth-round pick out of Michigan. Part 3 was Deflategate when Brady won his fifth Super Bowl after he was suspended for four games.

For the purpose of this writing, we focus on Part 2 because some thought Brady’s best days were behind him. (Many feel the same about Cam Newton now.) Even Bill Belichick said Tom was getting older and the plans for his successor in Jimmy Garoppolo were laid out before us ... and Brady.  

Tom E. Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast: Did Pats just become Cam Newton's team? | Listen and subscribe | Watch on YouTube

But once again, Brady defied the odds and forced Belichick to trade Jimmy G. to San Francisco. Needing to prove he still had "it," Brady reinvented himself and became a physical specimen, defying Father Time.

Can Cam Newton do the same? He is not as old now as Brady was then, but this guy was left for dead by the rest of the NFL and has even more to prove than Brady ever did.

If you backed Tom Brady, how can you not do the same for Cam?

Look, I love Tom Brady the football player. Off the field, I think he’s lost his mind, but there has been no better player in the history of sports than TB12. (See Tom, I used your logo. Happy?)

However, right now I am in Cam’s corner like I was in Brady’s when he was a Patriot. And you should be too.