The Patriots traded up twice in the third round of the 2020 draft to select two tight ends and both Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene have shown they can be contributors early in training camp. New England didn't get much out of the position in 2019 and the reinforcements behind Ryan Izzo, including undrafted rookie Jake Burt, have given the team a lot more to work with this summer.
"Devin and Dalton have worked hard," said head coach Bill Belichick via Webex prior to Monday's padded practice. "They've been out there, they've taken a lot of reps, they continue to get better. They have a long way to go, as do all the rookies that we've drafted, but we're seeing progress."
Tight ends are involved in all aspects of the Patriots offense and are often asked to play all over the formation, making the NFL jump at the position a difficult one. Both Asiasi and Keene have flashed, after initially bonding when they were roommates at the NFL Scouting Combine. Together, Keene thinks he and Asiasi will fit in as well on the field as they did off it.
"We complement each other in a lot of different ways on the field and it's nice having a guy who's in the same shoes as you," said Keene, while also crediting the help of the veterans in the tight end room like Izzo and Paul Butler.
"We got a couple older guys in our room with a little bit of experience, it's been really good to learn from them," said Keene after practice. "A lot of really talented and smart football players that we get to go learn from. You got us three rookies, which has been awesome, we're building some camaraderie and we got some guys to learn from."
"It's been great," said Asiasi of his first training camp, while enjoying the chance to work with his former roommate. "Being able to learn from [Dalton] and being able to see the way he works and the way he puts his best foot forward every day. It's been a pleasure working alongside him and coming in with him as well."
Asiasi has the frame to be an every-down tight end and has flashed strong hands. Despite the overwhelming amount of information and physical challenges, Asiasi maintained a soft-spoken calmn even after one of the most physical practices of the summer.
"Fun for me, a good experience, just trying to welcome any challenge the coaches give me and keep pushing forward, learning something each and every day," said the UCLA product.
The hardest thing for the rookies to learn? How much quicker everything happens.
"There's definitely a huge change in the speed of the game, that's something I'm trying to adjust to," said Keene. "Making better and faster decisions, being a better fundamental football player. I think that's a really big thing at this level."
Most importantly, Asiasi and Keene haven't missed a practice, a critical factor in getting them ready to play in an NFL game without any preseason action. So far they've both held their own, but the head coach reminded everyone that things were just getting started.
"I'd say to this point, [the rookies] are making good progress, they're making gains consistently, but it's going to get harder than what it is now and it's going to get a lot harder," said Bill Belichick. "So, we'll see how all that goes as the degree of difficulty climbs."
Uche learning every day
Another rookie who hasn't missed a day of practice is Josh Uche. The second-round pick has been active on the Patriots defense, getting thrust into the fire along with other rookies including Cassh Maluia, Scoota Harris and Anfernee Jennings after departures and opt-outs left the position group thin.
"It's a new experience, you're learning something new about yourself every day," said Uche on Monday. "Totally different process and you're just looking to build on every day brick-by-brick."
One potential aid in his transition is former Michigan teammate Chase Winovich and Uche was grateful to be reunited with his fellow Wolverine.
"It's great to have a familiar face around the facility," said Uche. "He's just been a really good mentor and just trying to compete with him, he sets the bar very high. It's a blessing, a terrific coincidence that we ended up on the same team."
With everyone clamoring to know exactly how the Patriots will employ Uche in their defense, he continue to relish the entire experience and everything it requires.
"This is all new to me, just the NFL in general," said Uche. "I'm just learning how to be a professional, learning new habits, learning how to take care of my body. Everything, in general, is just step-by-step. Learning from the older guys, that's the Slater's, the McCourty's, learned a lot from Bentley and John Simon, just learning from those guys and trying to follow in their footsteps."
Webex Quotes of Note
Devin Asiasi on Julian Edelman's leadership:
"Definitely a great leader, a guy who goes out there and leads by example. Works hard each and every day."
Shilique Calhoun on the excitement to put on the pads:
"I think we're all just excited to play football. We're all ready to get out there and compete with our teammates and give it our all every day."
Rex Burkhead on the importance of playing all four downs:
"It's something I've kind of always taken pride in, something my dad, who played football and tried out in the league for a couple years, had always kind of preached to me. Being able to do multiple things, don't just be one dimensional, don't just be a runner, you've got to be able to catch passes, block and even pay special teams. That versatility is something I always strive for and look to prove upon each day."