As the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft was unfolding, Bill Belichick knew he had to strike. It had been 10 years since the Patriots had taken a tight end in the first three rounds of any draft.
So on April 24, the Patriots were finally ready to restock the position. But first, Belichick had to do some extra homework.
That’s why he contacted a trusted resource, UCLA head coach Chip Kelly. The Patriots coach called his friend in the middle of the third round to ask about tight end Devin Asiasi. Kelly then called UCLA tight ends coach Derek Sage and told him to keep watching TV.
“Coach Kelly called me and was like, ‘Hey, I just got off the phone with coach Belichick. Belichick said, ‘I’m taking a tight end here in the third. Why should I take your guy?’ ” Sage said. “Coach went to bat for him. He was honest with them. He told them the good, the bad, the ugly. What he’s getting. (The Patriots) really relied on him.”
After Belichick spoke with Kelly, the Pats traded a third-rounder (100 overall), a fourth-rounder (139 overall) and fifth-rounder (172 overall) to the Las Vegas Raiders for the 91st pick and a fifth-round selection (159). Sure enough, they drafted Asiasi in the third round, making the UCLA underclassman the second tight end drafted.
Later that night, Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio said that the team used Kelly as a reference.
“This kid (Asiasi) has good size, runs well for his size. He’s pretty tough. He has some technique things he certainly can work on as an on-the-line-of-scrimmage blocker,” Caserio said. “Has a background with Coach Kelly. He certainly was a good resource for us on that one.”
So what exactly are the Patriots getting in Asiasi?
One of the most compelling and popular tight ends to come out of this draft.
On draft night, Kelly explained to Belichick why Asiasi was the real deal.
At 6-foot-3, 257 pounds, Asiasi has a special blend of size and athleticism. He’s also a willing blocker, who aided in pass protection and the run game. Asiasi is also versatile. He has the ability to line up at fullback, out wide as a receiver or pn the line with his hand in the dirt.
At UCLA, Asiasi was unique. In NFL circles, some people questioned it.
During the NFL Combine, the tight end had an interesting meeting with one unidentified team. The offensive coordinator asked him what happened on a certain play where he caught a deep pass. Asiasi went into detail about the multiple route options he had on the play. The answer was good, but too good. That’s why the offensive coordinator picked up his cell phone and called Kelly.
“An offensive coordinator called him and was like, ‘Chip, what’s the deal with this guy? Because I’m watching a cut up of these vertical passes and what play are you running here?’ ” Sage relayed. “(Kelly told him) well, he has the ability to do this, this, this and this.’ (The coach replies), ‘Come on. That’s what he told me in the meetings at the Combine, but I thought the kid was BS-ing me.’ “
Kelly reassured the coach that Asiasi has the ability to read the defense and adjust based on the scheme. Sage said multiple scouts and general managers reached out to him about the tight end this offseason and he told them all about his all-around skill set.
When Belichick reached out to Kelly on draft night, he noted that Asiasi’s willingness to block stood out.
“I told scouts and GMs, I know I’m partial to the kid, but I love the position, I played the position and coach the position. I try to give my most honest evaluation, but I think he’s the most complete tight end in the draft,” Sage said. “You can save a fullback roster spot and add that tight end who can stretch the field vertically and also horizontally.
“He has the ability to do that and has the ability to put his hand on the ground and block like a true tight end. The first thing Belichick said to Coach was ‘Nobody puts their face on anybody like this kid does.’ “
The 2020 NFL Draft was different due to the coronavirus pandemic. Most Pro Days were canceled. Nearly all pre-draft visits to NFL teams were canceled. That forced teams to rely on video interviews and more importantly, game film to analyze prospects.
“I think it actually helped Devin’s cause because the coaches, scouts and GMs actually had to really rely on a film evaluation,” Sage said. “If you just solely go off the film, Devin’s a second- or third-round draft pick. … I think with his film evaluation, he played really well and played elite those last four games down the stretch.”
As the offseason went on, Asiasi’s stock rose with NFL teams.
At the Combine, he met with a dozen teams, including the Patriots. According to a league source, Asiasi had pre-draft visits with eight teams and private workouts scheduled with another eight teams before everything shut down. He then had video interviews with nearly every NFL team. That included multiple conversations with Patriots tight end coach Nick Caley.
Asiasi also had multiple calls with head coaches and general managers from Chicago, Dallas, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City, San Francisco, New Orleans and Seattle, according to a source. By the time the draft came, there was little doubt that Asiasi would be drafted before the fourth round. Multiple teams expressed heavy interest and two said they had Asiasi as the top tight end on their board.
For that reason, the Patriots had to get aggressive. By trading up from No. 100 to pick 91, the Pats jumped over seven teams — Baltimore (two picks), Tennessee, Green Bay, Denver, Kansas City, Cleveland and the New York Giants. Of that group, Asiasi had multiple calls with high-ranking officials from Green Bay and Kansas City and met with the Titans and Browns at the Combine.
The smart bet was that the Patriots knew they had to leapfrog the Packers, who selected a tight end (Josiah Deguara) three picks later or the Chiefs.
The tight end position has changed in the NFL. The Patriots saw that up close when Rob Gronkowski dominated from 2010-2018. When he retired, the Pats had a void at the position with little production from Ben Watson, Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo last season.
It became clear that the team needed to restock, which is why it drafted Asiasi and then Dalton Keene in the third round. For nine seasons, Gronk gave the Pats a complete package with someone who could catch and block. It’s rare to get a complete package at tight end like that.
That’s why Asiasi was so popular.
The first spring he practiced at UCLA, after he transferred from Michigan, he wowed his coaches with his smooth route running.
“I knew that he was special, really special. So did coach Kelly,” Sage said. “So did a lot of people on our staff. Like, ‘Man that 86 kid is special.’ “
At practice, UCLA tight ends would always shift over to work with the offensive linemen for a while. Asiasi constantly put on a clinic, usually earning praise from offensive line coach Justin Frye. His work as a blocker became so impressive in games, coaches would rewind the film to watch again and again.
“Lots of times, coach Fry would blow his whistle and go, ‘That’s what it’s supposed to look like,’ ” Sage said. “Then we’d find ourselves watching film and doubling back and go, ‘Man, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.’ It’s those kinds of moments where you know you’ve got something special brewing.”
Between the positive words from the UCLA coaching staff and the attention he gained from other NFL teams leading up to the draft, Asiasi looks like the right player to get the tight end position back on track in Foxboro. The day he was drafted, Asiasi was asked who he molds his game after. He said the 49ers’ George Kittle and Gronk, but added he wanted to be different.
“At the end of the day, it’s your game,” Asiasi said. “You’ve got to make it unique in your own way.”
Asiasi will have that chance with the Patriots.
On Twitter @MarkDanielsPJ