The New England Patriots took a slight risk with their top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Kyle Dugger, who was taken by the Patriots 37th overall, is an older prospect who came from a small school and might have to switch positions in the NFL. Dugger, 24, mostly played as a deep safety at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne but projects as more of a box player with the Patriots.
If one or two of those attributes were different — if Dugger was younger, came from a bigger school or wasn’t a projection player — he would have been a first-round pick.
The reward may well be worth the risk. Dugger has an elite combination of size and athleticism at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds with a 4.49-second 40-yard dash, 42-inch vertical leap and 11-feet, 2-inch broad jump. Dugger was hand-timed even faster at the NFL Scouting Combine, with scouts clocking him at 4.43 seconds with a 1.51-second 10-yard split. He has what NFL teams covet most: size and speed.
Dugger is an older prospect because he redshirted at Lenior-Rhyne in 2014 and received a medical redshirt in 2016. (“You know, a lot of people go to college for (six) years.”)
Dugger played both free and strong safety at the Senior Bowl, the top college All-Star game, and had a standout week. He appeared more comfortable near the line of scrimmage in the Senior Bowl game.
It seems unlikely that Dugger will contribute immediately as a Day 1 starter in the Patriots’ defense because of the position group he’s joining and his raw skills. Even after trading safety Duron Harmon, the Patriots’ secondary still is loaded. Here’s how the entire depth chart currently stacks up:
It would be difficult for Dugger to immediately find snaps in even the Patriots’ dime defense with Gilmore, McCourty, McCourty, Jackson, Jones, Chung and potentially Phillips and Williams ahead of him on the current depth chart.
Dugger still is raw despite his age and played slightly out of control at times at Lenoir-Rhyne. Since he was playing above his competition, he could simply pop players to bring them down. He’ll need to refine his tackling form in the NFL. It did seem improved at the Senior Bowl.
Dugger primarily played as a downhill player in college. He didn’t appear to show fluid enough hips or the range to play as an NFL single-high safety in college. His hip fluidity also seemingly improved at the Senior Bowl, however. He also looked smooth in his backpedal during the Senior Bowl game.
Lenoir-Rhyne S Kyle Dugger taking part in the Senior Bowl. He?s impressed this week. pic.twitter.com/vAl3FHnyO7
— Alaina Getzenberg (@agetzenberg) January 23, 2020
He’d be fine taking on deep duties as a split safety. When the Patriots deploy a Cover-2, he could find himself sharing the deep half of the field with Devin McCourty. He’ll probably play the majority of his snaps in the box, however.
It’s likely the Patriots will keep Dugger in the 220-pound range, but he looks to have the frame to fill out even more. He has broad shoulders and probably could play as a hybrid-linebacker in some formations. Strong safety Patrick Chung, who will be 33 years old this season, has filled that role in the Patriots’ defense in the past, and Dugger is destined to eventually take his place. The Patriots prefer bigger players at the position, but it’s possible Dugger could take on a pseudo-linebacker role on third down.
Dugger most easily projects to fill in against the run. He takes direct angles downhill and brings an imposing presence in the middle of the field. He was a playmaker at Lenoir-Rhyne both on defense and special teams. He returned six punts for touchdowns in his college career and had a pick-six in his senior season. Dugger will compete for the Patriots’ top punt return job as a rookie.
We didn’t see him cover 1-on-1 much in college, but given his size and athleticism, he should be able to take on tight ends in the NFL. He covered tight ends well at the Senior Bowl in practice and the game.
New Patriots safety Kyle Dugger taking on tight ends at the Senior Bowl pic.twitter.com/hGl0mJFH91
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) April 25, 2020
Dugger had no problem defending tight end (and New Orleans Saints third-round pick) Adam Trautman in the Senior Bowl game. Dugger defended a pass intended for Trautman.
Dugger was charged with letting up a touchdown to Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver/tight end Chase Claypool in the Senior Bowl, but it was because of miscommunication. Dugger thought he was passing Claypool off to his cornerback in Banjo coverage. The cornerback thought they were in man, and no one followed Claypool.
Chung not only plays safety and in a hybrid-linebacker role. He also covers out of the slot. That might not be part of Dugger’s forte, however. We think Dugger should be able to play safety, as a third-down linebacker, cover tight ends 1-on-1 and contribute in deep coverage in the NFL. He won’t be a 1-for-1 Chung replacement but could take on additional duties that Chung didn’t fill.
It might take a year, but Dugger should be an impact player for the Patriots before long. He was the best player on the field at Lenoir-Rhyne, but his Senior Bowl performance solidified his standing as a top safety prospect. Many of the questions we had about him after watching his college tape were answered in that game. As a rookie, Dugger could see snaps as a split safety next to Devin McCourty and in coverage against tight ends.
Other games we watched: