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.

Richard Sherman on Colin Kaepernick: 'I think the majority didn't want to hear the message'

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Richard Sherman on Colin Kaepernick: 'I think the majority didn't want to hear the message'

Protesters and police are taking knees in cities across the country right now. As George Floyd's death continues to fuel demands for change, that simple act serves as an acknowledgement that something needs to happen.

Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the national anthem in 2016 with similar thoughts in mind.

At the time it fueled a national debate, not about systemic oppression or police brutality — things Kaepernick mentioned to reporters as he explained why he did what he did — but about the military, the flag and the anthem.

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The possibility exists that players will take knees again in 2020. Saints quarterback Drew Brees was asked by Yahoo! on Wednesday how the NFL should respond to players who may take a knee during the anthem this upcoming season.

"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said. "Let me tell you what I see and what I feel when the national anthem is played and when I look at the flag or the United States..."

Brees went on to say how during the playing of the anthem he's "in many cases" brought to tears thinking about his two grandfathers fighting in World War II, about those who've sacrificed serving the country in the military, as well as those who sacrificed to push the Civil Rights movement forward in the 1960s.

Brees added: "Is everything right with our country right now? No, it's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect for the flag with your hand over your heart is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better and that we are all part of the solution."

Brees' desire to see the nation improve and unify is reflective of sentiments that have been shared widely since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. But his labeling a form of peaceful protest during the anthem as disrespectful has already irked at least one teammate.

At the time of Kaepernick's protests, his initial message was not lost so much as it was ignored, Niners corner Richard Sherman told NBC Sports Boston via text Tuesday.

"He was really straightforward because this has been an issue forever," Sherman said. "I don't think the message got lost, I think the majority didn't want to hear the message because they didn't feel like it impacted their lives so they avoided an uncomfortable conversation."

Devin McCourty told his brother Jason during their Double Coverage podcast that he sensed that message was, four years later, starting to be more widely embraced.

“Look at Kaepernick," McCourty said. "A couple years ago people were going crazy, ‘This guy is this, this guy is that.’ And the irony of a man losing his life because an officer’s knee is on his neck, and now all of a sudden people are like, ‘Aw man, let me actually take the extra second to listen to what Kaepernick said in an interview about why he took a knee and why he did a silent protest.’ And when you listen to it, people are like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of how I feel right now after watching the video.’

"It’s like, yeah I know. Because if you ever stop and listen to what he was doing and his true message, you would have never gotten to that point and you would have never talked about the military, you would have never talked about the flag. You would have understood, he was talking about freedom. He was talking about a bunch of things that, whether you want to name Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, you could go throughout history, Madam CJ Walker, all of these people wanted freedom for someone. Whether it was women, black people, they wanted that, and that’s what [Kaepernick] was talking about. I think it’s been very interesting to see just reactions towards him and how people now all of a sudden think, ‘Oh man, yeah he is a good guy.’ No, he had a pretty good message from the beginning.”

Following his Yahoo! interview, Brees provided a statement later in the day to ESPN.

“I love and respect my teammates and I stand right there with them in regards to fighting for racial equality and justice,” Brees said. “I also stand with my grandfathers who risked their lives for this country and countless other military men and women who do it on a daily basis.”

Brees' reluctance to support others who feel differently than he does when they see the flag — others who may want to exercise their right to peacefully protest during the playing of the anthem — is going to serve as an indication for some that Kaepernick's message continues to fall on deaf ears.

Patriots Roster Reset: N'Keal Harry's improvement in Year 2 key to WR group

Patriots Roster Reset: N'Keal Harry's improvement in Year 2 key to WR group

The Patriots were desperate for receiver help in 2019.

They held onto Josh Gordon. They selected a wideout in the first round for the first time in Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach. They signed Antonio Brown. They traded a second-round pick mid-season to add a veteran with a year and a half left on his deal.

Very little stuck.

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With a loaded receiver class in this year's draft, it was a given they'd invest at the position again . . . right? They added four undrafted wideouts, but none went to New England on draft weekend.

Instead, it's clear the Patriots will rely on seeing improvement from that 2019 first-rounder, N'Keal Harry, and from the vet who cost a second-rounder, Mohamed Sanu.

"I'm sure all our young players will improve in year two," Belichick said after the draft. "Got a first-round pick on N'Keal last year, second-round pick on Sanu. That was really off this draft. Obviously have Julian [Edelman] and a number of other young players. I think that will be a very good group.

"There's a lot of different ways and times to build your team. The draft is one of them. As I mentioned, whether it's Sanu or free agents signing like [Damiere] Byrd, whatever the case might be, there's multiple ways to build your roster, and this is one of them."

Here's how the Patriots depth chart at receiver is looking as things stand right now.

LOCK ‘EM IN

This group could end up being six or seven players deep, and yet the number of true locks currently on the roster? Two: Julian Edelman and N'Keal Harry.

Mohamed Sanu was mentioned by Bill Belichick earlier this offseason as being the team's second-round pick this year since that's what they traded away to land him. But the reality is he's a wideout in his 30s, coming off offseason ankle surgery, making $6.5 million on the salary cap. It'd be a second-round pick wasted if the Patriots ended up releasing Sanu — maybe they could pick up some value for him if they found a trade partner — but they were desperate for receiving help when they acquired him last season. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

That pick is now a sunk cost. If there's a younger player on the roster the Patriots feel could provide what Sanu does at a lower price, then it would not come as an overwhelming surprise if the Patriots moved on.

Matthew Slater, if you want to include him in this group, is a lock as a special-teams captain. The 34-year-old is coming off one of his best seasons and will provide the same steady leadership he has for a decade as the team navigates a season without Tom Brady.

ON THE BUBBLE

Let's start with the players from last year's roster who will look to reclaim roles after the Patriots re-tooled the back end of the depth chart this offseason.

Jakobi Meyers showed real chemistry with Jarrett Stidham when the two then-rookies embarked on their first pro preseason together. That could help him carve out a role as a depth piece, but his place on the 53-man roster can't be considered a sure thing.

Same goes for Gunner Olszewski. He made the club as a reserve wideout and the No. 1 punt returner before landing on IR last season.The team added a variety of punt-return options offseason — including second-round pick Kyle Dugger — which adds to the challenge Olszewski faces in making the roster.

Damiere Byrd is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster who could bring a dynamic vertical element to the Patriots passing game if given the opportunity. He received $600,000 guaranteed to sign, according to the Boston Globe, which is more than some of the names you'll see under our "Long Shots" section, but it doesn't exactly guarantee him a roster spot.

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LONG SHOTS

Have to include all four undrafted rookies on this list just by the nature of their arrival to the Patriots.

Isaiah Zuber from Mississippi State pulled in the most guaranteed money among Patriots undrafted wideouts this year with $100,000. Jeff Thomas of Miami might be the most talented of the group, but he went undrafted after running into issues with two separate coaching staffs in college. Sean Riley — who like Zuber and Thomas could end up competing for a punt-return role — is an undersized interior option at 5-foot-8, 178 pounds out of Syracuse.

Auburn's Will Hastings is the player from this group we like as the favorite to make the roster at the moment. He lit up his pro day (one of the few this year that wasn't canceled) with elite-level agility numbers. He also has a built-in rapport with Stidham after their time together as Tigers teammates. Marqise Lee has to be included here after dealing with injury and being robbed of almost two full seasons. He did not play in 2018 and in 2019 he had just three catches in six games played.

Devin Ross and Quincy Adeboyejo, both of whom spent time on the Patriots practice squad last year, should be considered long shots as well.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

Jeff Thomas has talent. He's an NFL-caliber athlete. Listed at 5-foot-10, 174 pounds, he was a four-star high school recruit coming out of East St. Louis, Illinois — the No. 2 recruit in the state behind only edge defender A.J. Epenesa — and had offers from Alabama and Ohio State. His speed is instantaneous at the line of scrimmage and when he has the ball in his hands, he's able to hit another gear and pull away from defenders nearby.

His maturity level, meanwhile, has been an issue for him. He was dismissed from the Miami program by Mark Richt, who said at the time, "We have high standards for excellence, for conduct and for the commitment to the team for all of the young men who wear our uniform, and we will not waver from those standards." When a new coaching staff took over in 2019, he was welcomed back to the program . . . then suspended in October for two games for violating team rules.

If he can get with the Patriots program and adhere to everything they ask him to do, he has a real shot to make the roster and provide the team with an electric play-maker. But given his history, that's a sizable "if."

X-FACTOR

Marqise Lee told reporters earlier this month that he'd been working with Mick Lombardi as he gets caught up on the Patriots offense, and it sounded as though Lombardi had been handed the receiver coach's gig. There's been no official announcement by the team in terms of Lombardi's title, but if he has the receivers coach job then that's three in three years in New England. (Joe Judge, now head coach of the Giants, replaced Chad O'Shea as Patriots wideouts coach in 2019.)

Someone like Julian Edelman shouldn't be too severely impacted by the transition. But in a room that includes so much youth — including some intriguing undrafted rookies and the team's 2019 first-round pick — it'll be interesting to see how those players develop. Lombardi, son of former Patriots assistant Mike Lombardi, was most recently the assistant quarterbacks coach in New England. That's a title Lombardi held previously with the Jets.