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Patriots notebook: TE Dalton Keene making progress after NFL debut

Dalton Keene's work ethic was raved about during his path to becoming a third-round pick in last spring's draft. As the Patriots have quickly learned, the makeup of their rookie tight end matches his reputation.

"He has a great approach. He plays with his hair on fire and plays at 110 miles per hour play after play, which you appreciate," Patriots tight end and fullbacks coach Nick Caley said. "He loves the game and he plays hard."

That approach finally earned him a place on the field in Sunday's loss to the 49ers. After sitting out the first five games of the season, Keene was activated for his NFL debut over fellow rookie Devin Asiasi. Though he didn't see the field on offense until the second half, Keene still finished with more offensive snaps (24) than tight end Ryan Izzo (23), and he hauled in his first career reception ? an 8-yard pass from Cam Newton in the third quarter.

Keene's 46% snap rate was more than Asiasi has recorded in any game this season. The reason for Keene's opportunity? After a few weeks without much practice due to the COVID-19 situation, Keene made an impression during the week.

"I think it all goes back to how you start the week of practice," Caley said. "Dalton's worked really hard, this whole time he's worked hard to improve his technique and fundamentals and understanding of our offense. He had a good week of practice and I thought at the game, he played hard, played physical, and got him out there for call it 22, 24 snaps and I was pleased with his effort and his mental approach to the game from an assignment standpoint.

"There was definitely progress, so we just have to keep that going, collectively as a group, we just have to keep it going in that direction day by day."

Caley was vague on what specific improvements Keene has made to this point, but the coach described it as "substantial progress." Any type of progress is good news for a Patriots tight end group that has so far provided little production in the passing game, with an NFL-low eight receptions between Izzo, Asiasi and Keene.

"All of us in the room, we've got a ways to go," Caley said. "The biggest thing is focusing on improving day by day, little by little, and making sure we're continuing to grow and be better each day than we were before, and that's what I've been pleased with the entire group is, they've demonstrated that and they've made progress and they're all committed and they're all hungry, and they're all very coachable guys that I thoroughly enjoy being around."

A big loss

Brandon Copeland is out for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle, and though Bill Belichick didn't confirm it, saying the linebacker is still going through a series of tests, the coach acknowledged that the Patriots would be missing a valuable player on both defense and special teams.

"Brandon's done a good job to give us some versatility," Belichick said. "He's played for us on all four downs, in the kicking game and some inside linebacker and outside linebacker. So, he's an experienced player that in our situation will be hard to replace."

Special teams coach Cam Achord quantified Copeland's loss in that area of the game.

"He's been a dependable guy for us," Achord said. "Obviously, he's been four phases. He's going to do the right things. He takes pride in it out there. He has a sense of assertiveness, so it goes without saying how much his weight and his productivity we counted on. Any time you lose a player of that caliber, it's going to be tough to replace, but the next guy's gotta step up and fill that role. And we'll work to find out who that's going to be."

Coaches in waiting?

Since joining the Patriots coaching staff in 1991, running backs coach Ivan Fears has seen his share of players go on to become coaches — including two with the Pats now in Jerod Mayo and Troy Brown — and he thinks there are two players on the roster now who have coaching in their future — James White and Rex Burkhead.

Fears said he could one day see White as the head coach at Wisconsin, his alma mater.

"I think those guys, they enjoy what they do," Fears said. "They're really smart. They're really good with people. I think they're good with the press. I could see those guys, if they want to, taking that course. And Rex is really into training, personal training type things, no doubt I could see him, both of those guys being successful at it."

Man on a mission

As the Patriots' kick returner and a core special teamer, Gunner Olszewski has at time played with a reckless abandon, which is certainly appreciated by his coaches.

"I love his aggressive mentality that he brings to the game," Achord said. "He plays hard. I think for him, that's the only way he knows how to play. You know what you're going to get every time he steps on the field. It's a credit to him. He's an aggressive mentality guy, and he's going to give everything he's got. So I do appreciate that.

"For sure he's a hard worker. He's working at his craft. He's continuing to get better. You can't take that away from a guy. You take that away, and maybe he's not the same player, maybe he is. I think each player is different. I think that's something he definitely brings to the table, his aggressive mentality. For me, that's something I definitely appreciate."

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