Film Breakdown: Could Dalton Keene Play A Role Similar To That Of Aaron Hernandez?

Last season was not a good year for the Patriots offense. One could argue that no position group made less of an impact across the NFL than the Patriots tight end group. Led by an aging Ben Watson operating on a partially torn achilles, the Patriots tight end group never quite got it together following the retirement of Rob Gronkowski in the spring of 2019. In fact, the Patriots tight end production was downright grizzly, combining for 36 catches for 418 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Not content going into 2020 with career backup Matt LaCosse as the projected starter, the Patriots brain-trust used their mountain of draft capital to address the tight end position selecting both Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene in the third round of the NFL draft. Both players offer intriguing upside, but it’s Asiasi who is turning heads. Asiasi is reportedly off to the fast start in training camp. While Keene has reportedly been solid, observers have noted that he is behind Asiasi in his development. While that could be alarming for some to read, rest assured that this isn’t much of a surprise.

Watching Keene’s tape from Virginia Tech reveals a skill set that could have Patriots’ fans abuzz by season’s end–especially if he can play a similar role to former Patriots star tight end, Aaron Hernandez. Let’s jump in and see what the film reveals.

Keene at Virginia Tech

To start, while Keene is listed at tight end, he’s a guy who was used as more of an H-Back/Fullback/Tight-End hybrid during his time in Blacksburg. He was a key component of the Hokies’ run game. Keene lined up in or around the backfield on most of their plays.

While Keene isn’t a devastating blocker (yet), he has shown flashes of being able to move people in the running game, something the Patriots tight ends last year struggled to do.

His ability to open running lanes is something that could help him see the field early and often, provided the Patriots transition to a run-first team. Here he starts in the backfield before motioning out to H-Back. Watch above, as he delivers a nice kick out block to open the lane for his QB to run through. With Cam Newton at quarterback, Keene’s blocking out of the H-Back spot could become valuable.

Keene isn’t just a blocker though. When playing a more traditional in-line tight end role, Keene showed the ability to identify soft spots in a zone.

Even when he’s not wide open, he’s able to catch the football outside of his frame. After the Patriots had limited pass-catching options at tight end last season, anything Keene can give is an upgrade.

Keene won’t win very many foot races but he is a functional athlete in space. He plays with a physicality that can punish smaller defenders.

Similarities to Aaron Hernandez

The parts of Keene’s game that should have Patriots fans most excited are two of the traits that made Hernandez so successful during his short time in the NFL: his YAC ability in conjunction with his ability to line up all over the formation.

While Keene doesn’t possess anywhere near the same speed as Hernandez did, both players show a remarkable ability to create with the ball in their hands.

Hernandez created mismatches with his speed, while Keene creates mismatches with his strength and contact balance. Keene plays so much like a running back after the catch. Playing like that at his size is going to create issues for players trying to tackle him in the open field.

Positional Versatility

Throughout the years, New England has not been shy about sticking a non-running back in the backfield and using them as a true runner. They did it with Cordarrelle Patterson in 2018 and in the past with Hernandez. Keene should be used in the same way.

Above, Hernandez is running a straightforward outside zone play. His athleticism allows him to pick up 43 yards on the run. Because Keene lacks Hernandez’s athleticism, Keene will use his size, power, and balance to aid him in picking up yardage out of the backfield. We’ve seen plenty of examples of the kind of true runner Keene can be. He played out of the backfield in college numerous times.

Fumble aside, Keene runs this counter play to near perfection. He starts right, then cuts back against the flow of the defense.

Keene as a short-yardage runner is something that could and should happen for New England–especially given that they had such success using a smaller player like Hernandez in the same role. It’s also important to note that the Patriots had their fair share of short yardages struggles last season. Keene gives the Patriots another option in those situations.

This isn’t a long run by Keene, but he does his job and picks up the first down. Hernandez does the same thing below, but for an even greater gain.

Keene spent nearly the entire game against North Carolina lined up at running back (just like Hernandez did in the 2011 Divisional-Round), and he showed some promise.

Still, that isn’t to say that Keene should be used as a runner full time. A lot of what makes Keene so intriguing is his versatility.

Keene’s ability to catch and run makes him a threat on screen passes. He’s a patient runner that allows his blocks time to develop. Look at how he’s able to steal extra yards after contact.

Again, Hernandez did some of the same things with the Patriots that Keene did with Virginia Tech.

Keene’s 2020 Outlook

Keene is a player whose versatility may hurt him in the eyes of the fans early on. If he indeed plays multiple roles for the Patriots in 2020, his raw production may cause some to label him a “bust” a bit prematurely. Keene will take some time to come into his own and nail down his various responsibilities, given that he didn’t play in a pro-style system in college. In fact, it’s practically a given that Keene will lag behind classmate Asiasi who is a more traditional Y tight-end. Asiasi also played in a pro-style offense. It’s also important to remember that historically rookie tight ends produce at low rates.

That said, if the Patriots are “Keene” on recapturing the magic of the two-tight end sets that took the league by storm in the early 2010s, then Keene’s ability to play an Aaron Hernandez-like role could go a long way towards that. Fortunately for the Patriots, Keene already has some experience doing the kinds of things that Hernandez did while with the Patriots. Lots of ifs, but if Keene can approximate Hernandez’s role and Asiasi can tap into that raw talent that many believe can make him a star tight end, then we may see the Patriots get back to devastating the NFL with a dynamic duo of tight ends.

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