By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
"Of course they traded down to take a Division-II safety," Patriots fans bemoaned back in April when the team drafted Kyle Dugger in the second round - 37th overall - after trading out of the 23rd pick. There was an assumption the move was "typical Bill Belichick," trying to grab a hidden gem at value.
However it wasn't quite 'typical' Belichick. 2020 was just the sixth time in 21 draft Belichick traded down during the first round. Dugger was also just his second pick ever from a non-Division-I school, and first since tight end Andy Stokes was drafted out of NAIA school William Penn in the seventh round in 2005 (file that one away for trivia night).
Unlike Stokes, who never played an NFL game, Dugger proved to be an immediate NFL contributor. The Lenoir-Rhyne product recorded 64 tackles in 14 games for the Patriots in 2020, playing a number of different roles in the defense despite his overall inexperience at the pro level. While his raw physical ability certainly stands out, that versatility may be the most exciting element of his upside.
Patriots probably want Kyle Dugger to be a bit more controlled with his pass rush, but he knocked Austin Ekeler into next week. pic.twitter.com/YSex6ZS7ck
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) December 6, 2020
As the Patriots battled injuries and a general lack of depth on defense throughout the season, Dugger played a handful of positions including deep safety, box safety, linebacker, and even at times slot cornerback. The players who have the most success in New England tend to be the ones Belichick can use as chess pieces, and Dugger is trending in that direction.
In college, Dugger played the heavy majority of his snaps as a deep safety. With the Patriots never fully replacing Duron Harmon as their second deep safety in the offseason, Dugger saw some time in that role as a rookie. However, he was more impressive playing near the line of scrimmage, something he said he hadn't done pretty much at all in his football career before coming to New England.
His ability to assert himself with force was evident almost immediately. In the Patriots' Week 2 loss to Seattle Dugger made a number of standout physical plays, bodying both backs and offensive linemen alike as a pass rusher.
Not only does Chase Winovich toss Carlos Hyde out of the way like it’s nothing, we have Kyle Dugger coming in hot and moving an offensive lineman to get in on the play #Patriots ????pic.twitter.com/queEDAeynm
— Justin Trombino (@Trombino20) September 21, 2020
Dugger wasn't used as a pass rusher often, and didn't record an official QB hit in 2020. However, he showed some ability in that department. If and when the Patriots find a true free safety to partner with McCourty on the back end full time, that could and should free up Dugger to play more around the line of scrimmage, and specifically rush the passer.
When he wasn't blitzing, Dugger proved helpful throughout the season in covering tight ends. New England was one of the best teams against tight ends this season, especially early in the year. A key reason for that was their strong safety play, Dugger included. He was used in coverage rotations against the likes of Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and Mike Gesicki.
The 24-year-old rookie also proved to be comfortable playing in the box in the run game. In Week 10 against the Ravens - a very run-dominant team - Dugger played 85 percent of the defensive snaps, his second-highest total only to Week 17. He recorded a season-best 12 tackles in that one, showing up sideline-to-sideline and helping the team contain reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. Again, it would benefit the Patriots to find more ways to get Dugger lined up in the box moving forwards.
Watch Kyle Dugger on this play.
He immediately makes the defense younger and faster pic.twitter.com/BKZ3J8Keve
— SAVAGE BOSTON???? (@SavageBoston) November 18, 2020
When the Patriots drafted Dugger back in April, the biggest question was how would he adjust to the speed of the NFL game. Would a D-II player be able to process and predict fast enough to keep up with the pro tempo? From Day 1 of training camp, Dugger proved that answer to be a resounding yes.
There's still some work to do rounding out his game, as would be the case for any first-year player. But by all accounts he's a quick learner, which only helps his ceiling. His versatility is certainly helpful, but the key for the Patriots over the next year or two will be to find a role where he can really thrive, and maximize his physical and mental abilities. That could include replacing Patrick Chung as the primary box safety if and when he retires, a hybrid linebacker role like Adrian Phillips had in 2020, a return to the deep safety spot, or something entirely new.
Whatever his role ends up being, one thing is for sure. The Patriots seem to have something special in "the Division-II safety" they traded down to get.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].