At long last, the tight end position has returned to Foxboro.
Multiple tight end sets have almost been an essential element of the New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick. However, the Pats rarely (if ever) ran such packages in 2020. In fact, the Patriots ran merely 3% of their offensive plays with two or more tight ends on the field; the lowest percentage in the NFL.
2021 promises to be much different in that regard. New England added two of the most coveted tight ends on the free agent market in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. The Pats are also welcoming back a pair of 2020 third-round selections in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. Veterans Matt LaCosse, Troy Fumagalli and David Wells round out the positional depth chart heading into training camp.
LaCosse joined the Patriots in 2019. During this first season with the club, he struggled with injuries and registered just 13 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. LaCosse decided to opt out of the 2020 season, amidst concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
After spending the past two seasons with the Denver Broncos, Fumagalli signed with New England in May. He participated in the team’s offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp. Throughout his career, Fumagalli played in 19 games and caught 14 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Wells is no stranger to New England. The 26-year-old spent a week on the Pats’ practice squad in mid-November in 2020, after separate stints with the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs.
Though the aforementioned players are expected to garner some attention during this season’s training camp, here are three players that might raise an eyebrow… or perhaps, catch a ‘sharp eye’ among the Patriots’ tight ends in 2021.
Jonnu Smith/Hunter Henry
Listing two players in this spot might be seen as a bit of a cheat. However, the two newest faces on the tight end depth chart might just end up being the two most productive members of New England's offense in 2021. The Patriots acted quickly this offseason to secure Smith’s services The 6’3” 248-pound former Tennessee Titan should provide exactly what the Pats lacked in 2020. Smith is a prototypical ‘move’ tight end that will be an effective target in the red zone. He totaled 41 receptions for 448 yards and eight touchdowns last season. All eight of those scores came in the red zone. Smith is also a more than capable blocker.
Henry, a former second-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2016, is a star at his position. In fact, some may make the argument that his star is still on the rise. During his time with the Bolts, Henry compiled 196 career receptions, for 2322 yards and 21 touchdowns. While widely praised for his versatility, he is most productive when playing the traditional “Y” role, accentuating his route running skills, as well as his ability to box out. He has also proven himself a strong blocker and reliable pass catcher.
Pairing Henry alongside a prototypical ‘move’ tight end like Smith, will allow the Patriots to run 12-man personnel, featuring two equally potent tight end options. Combined with a sizable offensive line and a capable running game, the Patriots will be poised to succeed in several play action schemes in 2021; significantly more so than one year ago.
Heading into training camp, Asiasi seems to be the front-runner to earn the third slot on the tight end depth chart. Despite a statistically sour rookie season, one in which he caught just two passes on seven targets for 39 yards and one touchdown, he did show signs of promise. The former UCLA Bruin has a good blend of size, speed and length. He displays impressive athleticism and has demonstrated some upside as a route runner. Asiasi’s greatest asset is that he is a natural hands catcher with above-average body control. That trait should allow him to make strides in 2021.
Keene, much like his rookie classmate (Asiasi), also underwhelmed in his first season in New England. Though he did miss some time early on with a neck injury, the Virginia Tech product struggled to find comfort in the Pats offense. Still, Keene is versatile enough to be deployed in-line, in the slot and in the backfield. His ability to move around the field allows him to line up as an H-back, a fullback, or as an option in the slot or the perimeter. During his time in college, he frequently demonstrated the skill to run with power after the catch. However, he has yet to become a big-play threat and could use some improvement in his route running. It should be interesting to see if New England’s offensive coaching staff works with him to improve his productivity in this area. If so, Keene might just come into his own as a multi-faceted tight end, potentially seeing a significant amount of time at fullback, as well.