Ryan Izzo

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.

2018 NFL Draft: Only four Patriots remain from draft-in-bulk approach

2018 NFL Draft: Only four Patriots remain from draft-in-bulk approach

The Patriots had Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Damien Woody and Tom Brady in 2001. They had Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer and Matthew Slater in 2010.

Under Bill Belichick, as the Patriots went from version 0.0 to 1.0 to 2.0, there was a young core in place that served as their pulse. As they went, the team went. Championships followed. 

The outlook for version 3.0 is hazy. The young core is thin and rife with question marks after the Patriots went about maximizing Brady's last few seasons in New England by trading away picks for established veterans. Who makes up the core now? How many core pieces are there?

We're examining each of the Patriots' last four drafts to see how they got here, on the brink of a new era for the longest-running dynasty in modern NFL history, with an uncertain road ahead.

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In this edition we tackle the 2018 draft, when the Patriots had two first-round choices and got back to drafting in bulk after a meager (only four picks, none until the third round) 2017 class.

Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia (Round 1, Pick No. 23)

Good athlete. Smart. Came from an offense that wasn't a glorified seven-on-seven scheme. Wynn was an ideal Patriots offensive lineman, and he was physically gifted enough to earn a shot at the left tackle job despite being shorter and possessing shorter arms than the Patriots prototype.

He did get that shot, then tore his Achilles as a rookie. He came back to start his sophomore season on Tom Brady's blind side but got hurt again. A foot injury sapped half his season. All in all, he looks like he could be a staple up front for the Patriots. But he's played eight games in two years. 

Who they could’ve had: D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland (Round 1, Pick 24)

Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (Round 1, Pick No. 31)

The Patriots double-dipped on Bulldogs in the first round, taking a running back who was projected to be a do-it-all pro. He was a dynamic, slashing runner who broke arm tackles regularly for Kirby Smart's program. But as a pro, his value in the passing game has been almost nonexistent.

He now looks like a specialist who would qualify as a Patriots "big back," taking on the role once held by LeGarrette Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There's value in that. He helped carry the team to a long playoff run and Super Bowl win in 2018. He could grow into more of a receiver or pass-protector moving forward. He's still young. But knee injuries have taken him off the field at times and perhaps stunted his growth.

Who they could’ve had: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (Round 1, Pick 32)

Duke Dawson, CB, Florida (Round 2, Pick No. 56)

This pick was one of many that spawned from the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Made sense at the time. He was a slot-specific defensive back. Slot corners have value because slot receivers are among the most efficient in football. Didn't pan out. Clearly.

He injured his hamstring during a drill in his rookie training camp, and was placed on injured reserve to start that season. The Patriots designated him as one of their players to return off of IR, but he never played a snap that season. He was traded the following summer to the Broncos (along with a seventh-round pick) to get a sixth-rounder in return. 

Who they could’ve had: Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma (Round 3, Pick 86)

Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB, Purdue (Round 5, Pick No. 143)

Bentley was viewed — as a 260-pound linebacker — by some linebacker-needy teams as not being worthy of a spot on their draft board. He was a dinosaur. Too big. Too slow. Not someone who'd thrive when speed and quickness is becoming more important for second-level defenders in coverage. The Patriots didn't care. They like their 'backers beefy.

Bentley actually ended up winning a key defensive role right off the bat. He started the season-opener and two of his first three games. An injury in Week 3 sapped the remainder of his season. Stuck behind a deep linebacker group in his second season, Bentley didn't have much of a chance to make an impact. But that might be coming for him in Year 3. After losing Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, they need capable bodies at the linebacker level. Given what he showed as a rookie, Bentley is certainly capable. 

Who they could’ve had: Michael Dickson, P, Texas (Round 5, Pick 149)

Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State (Round 6, Pick No. 178)  

Into Day 3 of the draft, the Patriots took their hacks at some potential special-teamers and reserve types. Sam falls into that category. A linebacker with good athleticism and toughness, he landed on injured reserve before the start of his rookie season. Sticking with the team for his Year 2 training camp, he was released and not re-signed to the practice squad. The Dolphins, run by former Patriots assistant Brian Flores, scooped him up for their practice squad first. He's since bounced around a bit to the Niners p-squad and the Lions p-squad. He's set to enter camp with Matt Patricia's Lions. 

Who they could’ve had: Gus Edwards, RB, Rutgers (Undrafted)

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Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami (Round 6, Pick No. 210)

Berrios was a water bug-quick route runner with punt-return experience who was considered a leader for the Hurricanes during his tenure there. He was yet another rookie who ended up on IR for a team that was loaded with capable veteran contributors. It looked like 2019 might be his chance to work his way into a role, but he had an odd training camp. At times it looked like he was lost. At others he looked like he had an opportunity to fill the slot the Patriots wanted to address with Cole Beasley or Adam Humphries in free agency.

Then he was held out of preseason game No. 3. He was released at the end of camp. He seemed like an ideal candidate to try to sneak onto the practice squad. The Jets didn't let that happen. Despite limited preseason game reps, he was claimed off of waivers and added to their active roster. He ended up seeing offensive snaps in 11 games but caught just six passes on 10 targets for 115 yards. 

Who they could’ve had: Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State (Undrafted)

Danny Etling, QB, LSU (Round 7, Pick No. 219)

The Patriots explained after the draft that they liked Etling's performance at his pro day. He had a good arm. He was smart. He might not have been coached up all that well at LSU. His offense there might've been a little wonky. Maybe he was a diamond in the rough?

Not so.

While he was the consummate professional throughout his rookie camp, his highlight of the summer was an 86-yard touchdown run in the preseason finale. He spent that year on the practice squad and came back to Patriots camp the following summer as a receiver. He was waived before the end of camp and picked up by the Falcons. He spent most of the 2019 season on the Atlanta practice squad as a quarterback.

Who they could’ve had: Kyle Allen, QB, Houston (Undrafted)

Keion Crossen, CB, Western Carolina (Round 7, Pick No. 243)

The Patriots took a flier on an athlete from little-known Western Carolina, and by the end of the year, it looked like they'd hit. Crossen was a special-teams contributor throughout his rookie season — really all one could ask from a seventh-rounder — and he popped up in the AFC Championship Game that year with a key defensive role. For a period that day, he shadowed Chiefs burner Tyreek Hill with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

It looked like he could be molded into a defensive contributor with time. He didn't get that in New England, where the corner room was crowded. He was dealt to the Texans at the end of training camp in 2019 for a 2021 sixth-round pick.

Who they could’ve had: Levi Wallace, CB, Alabama (Undrafted)

Ryan Izzo, TE, Florida State (Round 7, Pick No. 250)

A Jersey kid who went to Florida State and became a key contributor in their pro style offense, Izzo made sense as a hard-nosed camp body. He'd compete with whoever was behind Rob Gronkowski. Make 'em work. He'd chip in on special teams, potentially. Still looked that way headed into 2019 after he missed his entire rookie season on IR (sensing a theme here?). We never assumed he'd be the defacto No. 1 tight end after Gronkowski retired. But he was at times. Matt LaCosse was injured. Other veteran acquisitions didn't work out.

Critical game snaps fell to Izzo for four weeks (Weeks 1, 3, 5, 6), who was serviceable as a receiver in spurts but looked overwhelmed in the running game. For 2020, he looks like a backup option to LaCosse and/or whatever tight end is drafted later this month. Izzo, A.J. Derby (2015) and Lee Smith (2011) are the three tight ends the Patriots drafted after taking Gronkowski in the second round in 2010.

Who they could’ve had: Poona Ford, DT, Texas (Undrafted)

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Answers at tight end available in free agency

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Answers at tight end available in free agency

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

Arguably the weakest tight end group in the NFL, the Patriots got little production from the trio of Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo for much of the year — both as receivers and run-blockers. After featuring a Hall of Famer at that position for the previous decade in Rob Gronkowski, it was a steep drop-off in terms of the performance here.

All three options missed time while hurt, and Watson was suspended the first four games of the year. None cracked 200 yards receiving. They combined for two touchdowns. They held the No. 56 (LaCosse), 96 (Watson) and 130 (Izzo) spots among run-blockers at the position in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.

Watson has announced he'll retire, but both Izzo and LaCosse are both on the roster for 2020. Still, this position needs addressing maybe more so than any other on the roster. 

PLAYER-BY-PLAYER LOWDOWN

Matt LaCosse: Signed on Day 1 of free agency last March, LaCosse never seemed to fully get his legs under him in the Patriots offense. He missed the season-opener injured and played just two games before the Patriots bye. He caught six passes in the team's final four games. The Patriots could release him and save over $1 million against the cap with just $150,000 of dead money counting toward their books.

Ryan Izzo: The second-year tight end out of Florida State took a red-shirt year in 2018 and played in six games last season. He was targeted nine times, caught six passes and scored once in Washington. He's under contract through 2021.

Ben Watson: Watson's year got off to a rocky start as he was released before he could be activated off of the suspended list. A week later, he was signed to try to provide the Patriots passing game with a bit of a boost. With LaCosse injured and Izzo the only occasional contributor, the position was in dire need. In Week 11 he caught three passes for 52 yards in a win over the Eagles, which was his highest yardage output of the year. He turned 39 on December 18 and will apparently stay retired after 15 years in the league. 

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James Develin: We'll include Patriots fullbacks in this conversation since those players meet with the tight ends on a daily basis in New England. Develin suffered a neck injury and was placed on injured reserve after just two games. He did remain with the team and served as somewhat of a coaching assistant, serving as a presence on the sidelines on game days and in the locker room during the week. He's under contract for one more season. 

Jakob Johnson: Brought to the Patriots via the International Player Pathway Program, Bill Belichick was very open about the fact that the Patriots would have never taken a chance on Johnson had it not been for the league mandating that each AFC East club take on an international player to serve as an 11th player on their practice squad in 2019. Johnson impressed to the point that the Patriots actually activated him to the roster. He played in four games before suffering a shoulder injury that landed him on IR. He's under contract for 2020.

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: BIG SWINGS

Hunter Henry: The Patriots may want to dip into free-agency to address their tight end spot. It's a difficult position to grasp for young players for a variety of reasons — the volume in the running and passing games, in particular, can be overwhelming — meaning a veteran might be a better option for a team that has an immediate need like New England.

Henry is arguably the best of the bunch. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder recorded a career-high 652 yards last season on 55 grabs. He's not a game-changer in the running game — PFF ranked him as the league's 73rd best run-blocker at the position last season — but the Patriots need weapons, and Henry might be the best where they need the most help. Would the Patriots be willing to pony up about $9 million per year for him, though?

Austin Hooper: This 6-foot-4, 254-pounder has done a better job of staying healthy (missed only three games the last three seasons) than Henry (missed all of 2018) and he's been more productive in a pass-happy offense. Hooper had 75 catches for 787 yards and six scores last year. The catch? It might cost about $10 million per year to lock him up. Or he may never become available. He's a candidate to be franchised this offseason. Like Henry, Hooper's not moving mountains in the run game (PFF's No. 77 run-blocker), but he's a dynamic receiver in the short-to-intermediate range. 

POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES: FLAWED BUT INTRIGUING

Tyler Eifert: He's a seven-year veteran. He's played 59 of a possible 112 games in that time. He's a career Bengal. But the knocks on Eifert's resume should make him incredibly affordable in 2020. And though he played just six games in 2017 and 2018 combined, he bounced back this season to play in all 16, catching 43 passes for 436 yards. 

Eric Ebron: The Colts didn't seem thrilled with the way Ebron's season went. He landed on injured reserve with an ankle issue after catching 31 passes for 375 yards and three scores. After the season, general manager Chris Ballard told reporters the team would be moving on. Ebron is only a season removed from catching 66 passes and 13 touchdowns. If he's healthy, there's no doubt he'd provide the tight end group in New England a talent upgrade.

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