The New England Patriots liked Kyle Dugger entering the last year’s pre-draft process. He was big, athletic, explosive, versatile.
But there was one problem. Dugger had spent his entire college career beating up on overmatched opponents at Division II Lenior-Rhyne. The Patriots had no idea how the intriguing young safety would fare against NFL-caliber competition.
Until they saw him at the Senior Bowl.
Dugger lit up college football’s premier prospect showcase last January, looking perfectly at home against blockers and pass-catchers from Power Five programs.
The Patriots were sold. After trading out of the first round, they took Dugger at No. 37 overall with their first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft.
“I think the Senior Bowl really helped Kyle,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in his post-draft video conference. “There he’s running a pro defense against a pro offense with soon-to-be pro players. Whether it was one-on-one drills, catching punts, tackling, I think you could really see he was able to compete very favorably at that level of competition and his scheme represents something close to what we’d be doing.
“It was a short window, but it was a full week of practice, a game. I think I saw a lot of improvement during the week and feel like this is a kid that’s smart, that works hard, that has a lot of ability.”
Belichick went on to note Dugger’s Senior Bowl performance several more times over the course of the 2020 season. This week, a condensed group of Patriots evaluators will return to Mobile, Ala., for the 2021 edition of an all-star game that, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, now carries even greater importance.
Traditionally the kickoff event of draft season and a warmup for the player evaluation juggernaut that is the NFL Scouting Combine, this year’s Senior Bowl will provide the only opportunity for teams to have in-person, face-to-face interaction with prospects, in addition to the practice and game matchups that will take place over the course of the week.
The NFL effectively canceled the combine amid ongoing coronavirus concerns, shifting to a decentralized format of compiling testing data at college pro days and mandating all pre-draft visits be held virtually. Restrictions have been put in place for the Senior Bowl, as well, like shrinking the size of teams’ traveling parties to 10 individuals per club and limiting player contact, but the information gleaned from these few days will be invaluable.
“It’s much more important,” ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper wrote Monday. “I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years, and the two constants on the pre-draft calendar have always been the Senior Bowl in January and the combine in late February. Now, the Senior Bowl is going to be the closest thing we get to an event with prospects from multiple schools in attendance.”
These benefits could result in an uptick of Senior Bowl players drafted — and drafted highly — this year. And even under normal circumstances, you could safely expect at least a few to land in New England.
The Patriots have selected at least one Senior Bowl alum in every NFL draft since 2008. They’ve drafted 46 total during that span, an average of 3.5 per year.
Among the notables: Patrick Chung (2009), Devin McCourty (2010), Nate Solder (2011), Jamie Collins (2013), Jimmy Garoppolo (2014), James White (2014), Trey Flowers (2015), Shaq Mason (2015), Jacoby Brissett (2016), Isaiah Wynn (2018), Ja’Whaun Bentley (2018) and Jarrett Stidham (2019).
Last year, the Patriots used each of their first three draft picks on players they saw in Mobile (Dugger, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings), then nabbed another in the sixth round (Justin Herron). In 2015, they took Senior Bowl players will five consecutive selections — a stretch that yielded Flowers, Mason and Joe Cardona.
The Patriots drafted just four players in 2017, the smallest haul in franchise history. Three of them played in the Senior Bowl.
Here’s a look at every Senior Bowl alum the Patriots have drafted since 2008:
S Kyle Dugger
LB Josh Uche
LB Anfernee Jennings
OL Justin Herron
QB Jarrett Stidham
DT Byron Cowart
P Jake Bailey
OT Isaiah Wynn
CB Duke Dawson
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
WR Braxton Berrios
DE Derek Rivers
OT Antonio Garcia
OT Conor McDermott
CB Cyrus Jones
QB Jacoby Brissett
WR Malcolm Mitchell
DE Geneo Grissom
DE Trey Flowers
G Tre’ Jackson
G Shaq Mason
LS Joe Cardona
QB Jimmy Garoppolo
C Bryan Stork
RB James White
OL Jon Halapio
DB Jemea Thomas
LB Jamie Collins
WR Aaron Dobson
DE Michael Buchanan
LB Steve Beauharnais
DE Jake Bequette
CB Alfonzo Dennard
OT Nate Solder
S Devin McCourty
WR Taylor Price
P Zoltan Mesko
OL Ted Larsen
OL Thomas Welch
QB Zac Robinson
S Patrick Chung
DT Ron Brace
CB Darius Butler
LB Tyrone McKenzie
LS Jake Ingram
CB Terrence Wheatley
A number of undrafted free agents also have taken the road through Mobile to New England, including Jakobi Meyers, Jonathan Jones, Ryan Allen, Keionta Davis, Harvey Langi, Danny Aiken and Tyler Ott.
Who might be next? This year’s crop of Senior Bowlers features some notable candidates.
Chief among them: Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, who will be looking to prove to scouts that his phenomenal 2020 season was not solely the result of the Crimson Tide’s obscenely loaded offense. With the Patriots lacking a clear answer at QB for 2021, Jones has been mentioned as a potential first-round target for them at No. 15.
Texas’s Sam Ehlinger, Notre Dame’s Ian Book, Arkansas’s Felipe Franks, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Georgia’s Jamie Newman will be the other quarterbacks in attendance. Florida’s Kyle Trask was on the initial Senior Bowl roster but pulled out due to an ankle injury.
Newman, who previously played with Herron at Wake Forest, will be one to watch, as he opted out of the 2020 season and hasn’t played since last fall. The same applies to Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins, Wake Forest wideout Sage Surratt and Washington defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike.
Senior Bowl practices will be held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with the game itself scheduled for Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NFL Network.