When New England selected safety Kyle Dugger in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the sentiment, among many Patriots fans, was “here we go again” (or maybe some type of obscenity).
The Patriots can’t help themselves from drafting defensive backs in the second round, and it’s gone astonishingly poorly over the last 10 years.
New England has taken cornerbacks Ras-I Dowling, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson and Joejuan Williams and safeties Tavon Wilson and Jordan Richards in the second round since 2011. It’s too early to tell on Williams, but otherwise that’s a murderer’s row of regrettable picks.
Dowling, Jones and Dawson didn’t last the length of their rookie contracts. Wilson and Richards never emerged past reserve and special teams roles. Williams played 80 snaps last season and has been moved into a specialized safety role covering tight ends this season.
It went pretty well in Week 1 when he did a nice job covering Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki. Williams, who has ideal length for the task at 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, began the Patriots’ Week 3 matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders taking on tight end Darren Waller on obvious passing downs, but he was benched after getting flagged for holding twice in the first 32 minutes of the game. He wound up playing just nine snaps yet has been widely congratulated for neutralizing Waller.
Dugger, who’s 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, took over for Williams and wasn’t flagged or even targeted in 25 total snaps.
“More than anything for me it’s huge just to have the team’s confidence and the coaches’ trust in me and giving me the opportunity to play that role,” Dugger, the Patriots’ top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, said Wednesday. “It’s really big for me. I’m really thankful for it.”
The Patriots play an equally difficult tight end in Week 4 when they travel to Kansas City to play Travis Kelce and the Chiefs. New England mixed coverages against Waller, though Williams and Dugger wound up lining up across from the Raiders tight end more than any other players. The Patriots should take a similar approach against Kelce, but the big question is who will get the first crack at the job?
New England might elect to go back to Williams and see if he can be less handsy with a slower pass-catcher. Or it could go with what worked to end the Raiders-Patriots game and see if Dugger can replicate his success against another Pro Bowler.
“They both run routes well even though it’s not exactly the same,” Dugger said while comparing Waller and Kelce. “I think Kelce is a little more physical at the top of is routes. So there’s definitely some differences in that but they both run routes well and are savvy at it.”
Williams has the height advantage but Dugger, who has taken on a safety/linebacker hybrid role in the box of the Patriots’ defense, is the stronger and more physical player.
Dugger mostly played deep safety at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. He’s adapted to playing closer to the line of scrimmage well.
“It’s a big difference in just that we played a lot of quarters at my college,” Dugger said. “So, my reads and things like that were almost completely different than what I’m doing right now. But I don’t really think about it like that I just kind of reset my mind and then whatever I can do to learn and continue to grow and get better at whatever role I’m at. That’s really what I’ve tried to focus on.”
Dugger, who didn’t have the benefit of spring practices or preseason as he made the massive jump to the pros, has played 70 defensive snaps this season including 34 in Week 2 and 25 in Week 3.
Here’s a list of defensive snaps played by the rest of those second-round picks we listed above when they were rookies:
Dugger is 21 plays away from out-snapping Dowling, Dawson and Williams. The only defensive back on that list he’s not currently on pace to outplay is Wilson, who was in a much weaker secondary than New England’s current squad.
Like with Williams, it’s too early to tell if Dugger was a hit. But the fact that the Patriots trusted him to cover Waller is a very, very, very good sign. Dugger has caught on quickly and has a rare combination of size and speed to take on many different roles in the Patriots’ defense.
If he can find success against Kelce this week, then perhaps we can say the New England’s cold streak is broken.