By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots' top 2020 draft pick already looks like a playmaker at the NFL level. It's exciting to think of what it'll look like when he gets even better.
One of the major themes of the 2020 season has been "stacking days." Week 3 against the Raiders presents an opportunity for rookie safety Kyle Dugger to stack onto the first big day of his NFL career, when he played 34 defensive snaps against the Seahawks and logged six tackles while contributing in an impressively wide variety of ways for the Patriots defense.
Dugger played in the box, at the second level, and deep. He played both man and zone. He covered both tight ends and running backs. The Patriots blitzed Dugger four times, which is where his power showed up the most.
The safety made his presence felt on a second-quarter sack of Russell Wilson, blowing up right guard Damien Lewis up the middle and buying Chase Winovich and Derek Rivers enough time to help him bring Wilson down for the gang-tackle. He also showed good closing speed tackling running backs in the flat and up the sideline.
Teammates have remarked how much Dugger has impressed them with how quickly he's learning the Patriots defense. His size and speed jump off the screen, but his intelligence for the game could bring him to another level, perhaps even this season. He could be a real asset against running backs and tight ends in the passing game, which has been a crutch of sorts for this defense in recent years.
It's not unprecedented for rookies to make big plays for the Patriots defense. Devin McCourty played like a defensive rookie of the year candidate in 2010. Jamie Collins registered a sack, three QB hits, six tackles, and an interception in his first career playoff game in 2013. J.C. Jackson has been a dependable outside corner since he entered the league two and a half years ago. There's that one play.
Should the Patriots find themselves in a big playoff situation again, there's reason to be confident that Dugger will be ready and capable of coming through when the moment arrives.
It's clear already that Dugger has NFL-quality physical tools. His versatility is on display. But he also often proved to be on the same page with everyone else in the system, such as when he switched with Devin McCourty as the deep safety so the captain could come down to help on a Seattle run play. That was Dugger's second snap of the game.
Dugger looked like he belonged, which is highly encouraging since he notably jumped from Division-II to the NFL.
"Obviously there's a lot of differences between the level of play in Division II and the NFL but, at the end of the day it's all football," Dugger said last week. "And so I kind of just look at it more so as a thing of, I don't really look at who I'm playing with, I just kind of look at the game I'm playing and how I can benefit the team and help out no matter who I'm really lining up against."
Wilson repeatedly burned the Pats defense last Sunday night, but rarely because of anything Dugger did. The rookie was on the field for only two of Wilson's five touchdown passes, and didn't play a single snap on two of their touchdown drives.
Dugger, who is questionable for Sunday with an ankle injury, didn't have a perfect night against the Seahawks. No one on defense did. He froze in the middle of the field and got picked on Freddie Swain's wide-open crossing route for an easy touchdown. But as with any young player seeing an increased workload in a complex defense, ups and downs should be expected. The key is to use those learning experiences to his advantage in the future.
"When you become a good player, you start to build that memory of the play, of the formation, what it sounded like, what it looked like, and once those things start to come up again, you now know it and you get to play it differently," Devin McCourty said Friday. "You get to you know communicate it to other guys. That doesn't happen your rookie year. You're just out there playing. So I think like anything, with all the young rookies that we got out there, it's us helping them and talking to them as much as possible and letting Dug use his God-given ability and his knowledge of what he's learned so far in the defense. And I think he's done a great job of that.
"I've been saying it since training camp started -- really studying and knowing what he has to do, and then allowing us to help him with different alerts and things he just hasn't seen yet because he's young. But he's done a good job of just knowing what he's supposed to do and then playing aggressive and fast."
Patriots cornerback Jones described September as an "equal opportunity" to get better, win or lose. So last Sunday's defeat is a good chance for the veterans to show Dugger how to focus on correcting his errors while building on the positives.
Dugger is off to a tremendous start for a rookie with limited snaps. As long as he sticks to whatever process he has now, his potential is limitless.
Edelman Goes To Bat For Harry
Cam Newton turned a lot of heads last week when he delivered a strong defense of N'Keal Harry. The sophomore receiver responded nicely, grabbing eight of 12 targets against the Seahawks and catching three passes on the Patriots' final drive, which came within a yard of a walk-off touchdown.
Add Julian Edelman to the list of teammates sticking up for Harry, who has been under a microscope ever since spending the first half of his rookie season on IR. He's been judged harshly, and perhaps too hastily for a player in his second season with only 10 games under his belt. But as one of Harry's mentors, Edelman sees it differently.
“If I see something or if he has a question, I could be the guy that he can ask a question to, so, that’s what I try to do," Edelman said Friday. "I’m super proud of him and I hope he continues to blossom the way he’s going because he’s doing an awesome job.’’
The next step for Harry is to make more big plays down the field and make more guys miss after the catch. He has a good game to build upon moving forward.
Snap Out Of It
The Patriots have their challenges on defense, but they'll at least have a full stable of veteran starters. On offense the middle of their offensive line has been gutted with the loss of center David Andrews, who could be headed to injured reserve and miss at least three games with a broken thumb.
Bill Belichick has his options. He hinted in a video conference earlier this week that he doesn't necessarily want to start two backups, which is technically what would happen if he moved left guard Joe Thuney to center. A one-for-one swap is more likely, making Froholdt a candidate to make his first career start at center. Another probably move, however, is that practice squad OL James Ferentz is promoted to the main roster. It would be Ferentz' second start for the Patriots at center. He pinch-hit for one game in Andrews' place in 2019.
The need for clean snaps is obvious, but the biggest hit to the Pats offensive line could be their athleticism on the run and their ability to make the right protections in the passing game. Maybe Sunday teaches us a lot about Froholdt.
Uche Bides His Time
Rookie linebacker Josh Uche can't seem to catch a break in the early going. The Patriots' second-round pick out of Michigan is out for Week 3 against the Raiders with a foot injury, after missing Week 2 with an ankle issue. He was a healthy scratch in Week 1 against the Dolphins.
If his Twitter page is any indication, Uche is doing his best to stay patient. "In due time," he tweeted last Friday with an hourglass emoji. Curiously, Uche was a limited participant in Thursday's practice this week before being absent on Friday and ruled out.
In due time ⏳
The Patriots could use depth at inside linebacker, for sure. But they could also use some of the speed and athleticism that Uche brings to the table. So whenever his NFL debut comes, it will be most welcome.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].