With the addition of two tight ends in the 2020 draft, the Patriots injected a needy dose of youthful athleticism to the position with a complimentary pair that should be a huge help to the team's new quarterback.
Devin Asiasi was the first to be selected at 91st overall, while Dalton Keene had to wait just 10 more picks to hear his own name called. The last time the Patriots took two tight ends in the draft it was 2010 and it redefined their attack. Now, Asiasi and Keene hope to do the same.
Coincidentally, the two had been roommates at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
"We got to talk and it was a really good experience for me just because of the stress and everything going on at the Combine, we had that shared experience," said Keene of rooming with Asiasi. "I think it was really good to start to build that relationship. I think that's going to help us out a lot moving forward because we've already broken the ice and we already know each other. I'm really looking forward to playing with him."
"Oh, man Dalton was a great roommate," recalled Asiasi. "Definitely created a good relationship with him when I was over there – just kept it really respectful. We were both there to do our thing and go out there and perform and perform to the best of our abilities."
While Asiasi is a more traditional tight end, Keene is a versatile weapon that was used all over the offensive formation at Virginia Tech, but didn't have the kind of overwhelming production that made him a big name coming out.
"They did a lot of things to try to get him the ball one way or another: hand it to him, throw it to him, put him in different locations so that he could run with it or catch it and run with it," said Bill Belichick. "I've already talked to him about that, that it's going to be a big transition for him in terms of learning our system, being I would say, more detailed, more specific on a lot of assignments, particularly in the passing game, learning how to block in close quarters. "
Keene's versatility goes back to high school, where he quickly made a name for himself under Coach Bret McGatlin at Chatfield High School in Littleton, Colorardo. McGatlin formed a close bond with Keene and eagerly watched the NFL draft waiting for his former player's name to be called.
"One of my current players texted me when he saw the Patriot trade up, and he goes, 'Coach, the Patriots are trading up to get Dalton. I guarantee it,'" recalled McGatlin. "And I said, 'No. No way.'
And then all of a sudden that happened. I screamed, my family came running into the room, like, 'Hey!
They got him!' It was a really cool thing."
Keene first appeared on McGatlin's radar after going through a huge growth spurt as an eighth grader, shooting up well over six feet. At the end of Keene's freshman year, which he spent playing quarterback, he got the call up to the varsity squad for the playoffs and made an immediate impact.
"I just remember that first week of the playoffs he was a plain scout linebacker because they're not far off," said McGatlin. "He came up there to compete. Most of [the younger kids] are scared of death when they come up, he was not. That was when we first noticed we got to get him in the game."
After getting some playing time during that playoff run, Keene's high school career progressed at middle linebacker, until Coach McGatlin's father Don, a retired two-time State Champion football coach and three-time State Champion track coach himself, suggested an offensive position shift Keene.
"My dad told me, 'You should move him to running back, I'm like, 'Really, Dalton?' How big he was, and he's like, 'He's so agile and he moves so well.'"
From that point, Keene began bowling over defenders and eventually breaking 1,000 rushing yards and 100 tackles as a senior.
"He's got a highlight video somewhere out there, I think it's on his Twitter from a while ago, but it's 10 minutes long and it's just him destroying," laughed McGatlin. "He was such a great blocker, and he did not care about how much he got the ball, but obviously [we were] getting him the ball however we could."
Keene's experience as a running back served him well at Virginia Tech, where his open field running style quickly became one of his biggest strengths. His college stats weren't overwhelming as the Hokies struggled to make him a cornerstone of their offense and that led to some uncertainty heading into the draft.
In three seasons, Keene finished with 59 catches for 748 yards and eight touchdowns. He'd chip in 11 carries in his final season.
Still, McGatlin felt the Patriots pursued Keene for a reason.
"[The Patriots] realized that he's not just a blocking guy," said McGatlin. "He can do so much, which is what I love because he didn't get as much opportunity at Virginia Tech as I know I would've liked to see, but I know that the Patriots wouldn't just trade up just for a guy who's going to come and block a lot."
How Keene's game translates to the NFL is a big question, but he's joining an experienced offensive coordinator who won't hesitate to design plays that lean into his player's strengths. Like all rookies, Keene will have a steep learning curve, but he has untapped potential that could finally be reached as a pro.
"I think as soon as he starts learning the NFL game a little more I really believe his catching ability, and his route running was underrated," said McGatlin. "I really feel like he's going to be great at that, and I really feel like his yards after the catch is going be something that will be fun to watch. He's a powerful runner, but he's also got great vision. That's one thing, he's got great vision, sees a hole really well or open field really well."
Of almost equal importance is how Keene will fit in off the field, where Coach McGatlin praised him for his dedication to the program.
While in college Keene would return to Chatfield to help out and since breaking most of the school's weight lifting numbers, he's helped set the bar for new players to break those records. The impact Keene had on the program still reverberates, years later.
"As far as just the human being is, he's just one of the kindest human beings," said McGatlin. "He'll go out of his way to say 'hey' to anybody, which I love. He gets on the field, he's just an animal in the weight room, he's an animal, but generally just a good, good person. That's what I love about him."
Keene was excited to get going in New England, a team that seems well-equipped to make the most of his skillset.
"The winning culture and just taking it day by day and working hard," said Keene when asked about his impression of the Patriots. "I think that really reflects me as a player.
"I'm so excited that I got picked up by the Patriots because I think they do so many different things with their tight ends and are really creative there. So, I couldn't be happier right now with where I ended up."