By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
After multiple Super Bowl championships and prolonged success at the position, the New England Patriots entered the 2020 NFL Draft in dire need of a positional reset in an attempt to bridge the organization to its next chapter of excellence.
What, you were expecting that to come somewhere else?
While the departure of the 42-year-old Tom Brady was (rightfully) stealing every headline, the New England defense was getting straight-up ravaged by losses of their own. Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts left for a reunion with Brian Flores in Miami, Jamie Collins opted for a cash-in with the Detroit Lions, and Duron Harmon joined him as the victim of a cash-saving trade. And while the defense remains led by the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year in Stephon Gilmore, the other members of its core find themselves entering uncertain territory. Lone Boogeyman linebacker Dont'a Hightower turned 30 last month, The McCourty Twins have hit the point where every year will end with retirement questions, and while Patrick Chung fought like only he can, 2019 ended with the 32-year-old held together by Elmer's.
The Patriots were also coming off heavy high-end investments on the other side of the ball in back-to-back drafts, selecting wideout N'Keal Harry with their 2019 first-round pick, and offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel with their 2018 first-round picks. In fact, the Patriots used five of their first seven picks in 2019 to address offensive positions (including three skill-position picks), and three of their first six picks in 2018 to help Brady's bunch.
If there was ever a time to invest in that next wave of defenders, it was with double-digit pick 2020 draft, and upon the exit of Brady. (Plus, the odds said you had a 1-in-199 chance at the very best of replacing the greatest ever, so why try right off the bat?)
Jennings and Uche are perfect examples of what the Patriots needed, too. These are highly athletic, hard-working linebackers who can line up in a variety of ways, and be utilized all over the field. Given what the Patriots are going against at quarterback within the division and the conference, this was a massive need in the wake of losing Collins and Van Noy. Almost doubly so when you realize how the Patriots are built to win games in 2020. In fact, Jennings, who comes to the Patriots as the first Saban-coached linebacker since Hightower, has even drawn comparisons to Van Noy.
"One of the things that is important is the mental flexibility," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio acknowledged. "The physical flexibility and versatility is important, but if they don't have the mental capacity and flexibility to do that, you have to minimize what they're asked to do, which is fine and we try to do that. We just try to put the players in the best position possible so they can handle and do what they do well. A lot of that is I'd say a result of kind of where the league is, what we're forced to defend, and conversely what we see on the other side of the ball offensively."
But the draft often kills non-flashy players (or guys we've heard of), and no player felt that wrath more than Dugger.
Given his status as a Division-II standout at small-school Lenoir–Rhyne (I admittedly had to Google it because it sounded more like a Quebec junior team than a football program), Dugger was immediately crushed as a reach. Yet, Dugger's physical tools wowed at the combine, almost every pre-draft report had him listed as a top-five safety, and most projected him as a middle of the second round pick. If the Patriots reached to get him, it was probably by about 10 picks at the very most. Oh, and asking Dugger to pay for the sins of past defensive-back, round two failures is straight-up silliness, but I digress.
And the Patriots certainly weren't in the business of doubting Dugger just because of where he played.
"We can't control where they play, the only thing we can control is our evaluation," said Caserio. "Pretty explosive player. Big, he's tough, he's fast, he's smart. He has some four-down type elements. Return to playing in the kicking game. Played well at his level of competition. Held his own at the Senior Bowl against better competition. One of the things you like to see or you look for is the player like that with that background to see how they hold up in that environment."
(And for what it's worth, if the Patriots turned Malcolm Butler from Popeyes employee/D-II West Alabama to Super Bowl hero and No. 1 corner, and turned Stephen Neal from college wrestler with zero college football experience to starting lineman on three Super Bowl-winning squads, you have to feel as if they have a solid hold on what Dugger can do.)
"It's not about how you get here, where you come from, it's what you do while you're here," Caserio said. "I think that mindset and philosophy certainly applies in [Dugger's] particular situation.
"Part of this is projection. That's really what we're doing with all of these players because none of them have played a snap of NFL football regardless of where they played or have come from. It's a good question. It's something you certainly have to consider. Players like Dugger, Matthew Judon is a good example -- got picked in the fifth round, now he's a franchise player for the Ravens. It's not really about where they come from or how they do it, it's what they do while they're here.
"That will be the case with Kyle and all these players' situations."
What you have to love about this move above all else, however, is the fact that the Patriots are bringing these guys in while their Hightowers, McCourtys, and Chungs are still in the picture as viable on-field contributors and off-field leaders.
"I’ve watched them play for a long time and I know a lot about their versatility, how they can do anything you ask of a DB on the football field," Dugger said of McCourty and Chung. "So to be able to learn from guys who have played at a level that high and have done it well for so long, it’s a huge honor. I’m definitely going to be soaking up everything I can from them and just making sure I listen and watch and be on them like a hawk trying to pick up everything I can from those guys."
...And you thought the old better to be a year early than a year late adage only applied to players leaving town.