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‘Worth the Watch’ Yay or Nay? Tight Ends Returned to Relevance for Patriots in 2021

In the wake of the New England Patriots 2021 season, Patriot Maven provides analysis for the players on whom Pats fans might have wanted to keep watch. Were they worth the attention?

The New England Patriots overcame a 2-4 start to the 2021 NFL season, to finish with a 10-7 record and earned a playoff berth after a one-year absence. Still, the Pats face a great deal of questions as they head towards the 2022 season. Despite a seven-game win streak which briefly returned New England to the top of the conference standings, a late-season slide caused a slip in the standings. The Pats season came to a dismal finish on Wild Card weekend with a 47-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

While New England begins the process of buying their roster for the upcoming season, there are plenty of areas in which the Patriots will seek improvement. The Pats will take stock in their performance in all three phases by examining each positional grouping and evaluating their output.

One of the more high-profile positions for the Pats this season was at tight end.

Let’s examine whether this positional grouping of Patriots was ‘worth the watch’ during the 2021 season

Jonnu Smith - More Nay than Yay

The Patriots acted quickly during the 2021 offseason to secure Smith's services. The 6’3” 248-pound former Tennessee Titan was expected to provide what the Pats lacked in 2020; a prototypical ‘move’ tight end that could be an effective target in the red zone. After all, his eight touchdowns in 2020 came as a red zone target.

However, Smith statistically underwhelmed in 2021. After compiling 41 receptions for 448 yards and his aforementioned eight touchdowns during his final season as a Titan, Smith finished the 2021 regular season with 28 catches, 294 receiving yards and one touchdown throughout 16 games. Though that may seem like a notable drop off, it should be noted that Smith was targeted 20 fewer times in 2021 than the previous season.

Still, Smith has earned the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates, who see a bright future ahead for him. Though his offensive numbers may have fallen short of expectations, Smith still led all tight ends in yards gained after catch per reception (8.5), according to Pro Football Focus. With one year in the Patriots system behind him, the 26-year-old should see marked improvement in 2022.

Hunter Henry - Yay

Henry, a former second-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2016, further established himself as a star at his positioning his first season with New England. In fact, some may make the argument that his star will only continue to 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 impressive route running skills, as well as his ability to box out. He has also proven himself a strong blocker and reliable pass catcher.

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Pairing Henry alongside a prototypical ‘move’ tight end like Smith was expected to 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, New England was expected to excel in several play action schemes in 2021; significantly more so than one year ago. Unfortunately, that was seldom the case.

Despite the unexpected lack of production from their tandem of tight endage, Henry still had one of his most statistically productive seasons. He finished the 2021 season having compiled 603 yards on 50 catches with nine touchdowns. His connection with quarterback Mac Jones led to some of the Patriots most impressive offensive plays. As such, Henry is almost certain to remain a key offensive component for New England in 2022 and beyond.

Devin Asiasi - Nay

Heading into training camp, Asiasi seemed 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. Unfortunately, Asiasi scarcely for the chance to display that promise, spending most of the season as a healthy inactive on game day. The former UCLA Bruin only saw the field for 12 snaps during the Pats Week Ten victory over the Cleveland Browns.

While it may be possible that Asiasi has played his final down in Foxboro, some still believe that he can contribute to the Pats offense. To do so, he must blend his size, speed and length. When at his best, Asiasi has 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 2022.

Dalton Keene - Incomplete

Having been selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft (101st overall), the Virginia Tech product was expected to help revitalize a then-struggling tight end positional grouping. However, much like his rookie classmate and fellow tight-end Devin Asiasi, Keene underwhelmed in his first season in New England. Though he did miss some time early on in 2020 with a neck injury, the 22-year-old struggled to find comfort in the Pats offense. He appeared in six games during his rookie season, logging three receptions for 16 yards on five targets.

Despite his first-season struggles, the Pats remained hopeful that Keene would be versatile enough to be deployed in-line, in the slot and in the backfield in 2021. The 22-year-old was expected to use his time in camp to work on improving his route running, while also taking some reps at the fullback position. However, Keene was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list prior to the start of training camp. In August, he was moved to injured reserve, after undergoing surgery to repair a meniscus injury.

Keene’s 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 an offensive factor with the Patriots, and is likely to face an uphill battle to earn a roster spot in 2022.

Matt LaCosse - Nay

Having joined the team in 2019, LaCosse has likely played his final game with the Patriots. The former 2015 undrafted free agent has also spent time with the New York Giants, New York Jets and Denver Broncos before agreeing to terms with New England. In his first season with the Pats, he started eight games, catching 13 passes with one touchdown. Having opted out of the 2020 season amidst COVID-19 concerns, LaCosse made his 2021 season debut against the Cleveland Browns in November. The 29-year-old took 10 total snaps, playing nine on offense plus another in the kicking game. LaCosse finished the game with no catches.

Michael Onwenu - Yay

Though he was one of the Patriots most prolific offensive linemen in 2020, Onwenu spent a great deal of the season aligning as a ‘jumbo tight end.’ At 6-foot-3, 350-pounds, the term took on a whole new meaning in 2021.

When called upon to line up outside the tackle, Onwenu proved to be a surprisingly versatile player. Though making the move to a blocking tight end was a big challenge, he was able to use the opportunity to deepen his on-field savvy by working with multiple coaches on the Patriots staff. The 24-year-old may have seen a reduction in snaps as a result of the switch. However, the Michigan product is expected to return to his natural spot on the offensive line in the upcoming season. Still, it would not be a surprise to occasionally hear “Number 71 is eligible” via public address in a handful of New England’s 2022 season slate of games.