Patriots Positional Preview: Three Biggest Questions Facing Safeties

Can Kyle Dugger take a Year 2 leap?

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As the Patriots progress through Phase 3 of their offseason program, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s new-look roster. Next up: safeties.

OFFSEASON CHANGES
The most significant change to this position group was the retirement of longtime stalwart Patrick Chung, but he wasn’t in the picture last season after opting out. As for additions, the headliner was Jalen Mills, who’s listed as a cornerback but played all over the secondary during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Patriots also added veteran Adrian Colbert late in free agency and selected Missouri’s Joshuah Bledsoe in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. (Bledsoe broke his wrist before the draft and has been practicing with a cast on in organized team activities.)

Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips all are back, as are versatile corner/safety hybrids Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant.

THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Who starts at strong safety?
Will it be Dugger, who showed star potential during his impressive rookie season? With his size and athleticism, the 2020 second-round pick looks like a natural fit for Chung’s old spot if he stays on his current trajectory.

Phillips is another candidate for the Patriots, as strong safety is his natural position. The 29-year-old led the team in tackles last season while playing as an undersized off-the-ball linebacker.

Mills also is versatile enough to handle a number of Chung-type duties.

Most of the Patriots’ starting defense is relatively easy to project, but this is one spot that has some intrigue. Dugger, Phillips and Mills all should see plenty of defensive playing time regardless.

2. Who backs up Devin McCourty?
McCourty has been the Patriots’ starting free safety for close to a decade, but he often fills other roles in the secondary, as well, like playing in the box or covering tight ends. For years, Duron Harmon would enter as the deep safety when McCourty roamed, but his trade to the Detroit Lions last offseason left the Patriots without another obvious centerfield option.

New England filled that hole by playing Jones, Jason McCourty and, eventually, Bryant in multiple positions. Jason McCourty left for Miami in free agency, but Jones and Bryant remain and could handle similar safety duties this season.

Mills is another option, as roughly a quarter of his snaps last season came as a deep safety. Colbert isn’t a lock to make the roster, but he’s primarily played as a free safety over his four NFL seasons and could provide additional depth if he sticks.

Devin McCourty’s durability — among his numerous other positive traits — has been a major asset for the Patriots’ defense. The soon-to-be 34-year-old hasn’t missed a game since 2015 and has played at least 94 percent of defensive snaps in each of the last five seasons.

3. Can Kyle Dugger take the next step?
Dugger was the Patriots’ top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft (37th overall), and he lived up to that billing last season, wowing teammates with his smarts and dishing out monster hits while playing all over New England’s defense.

It wasn’t a flawless debut campaign for the former Division II standout, though. Having never been asked to cover tight ends man-to-man in college — most of his snaps at Lenoir-Rhyne came at deep safety — he experienced some growing pains in that area, allowing completions on 73.7 percent of his targets and a passer rating against of 93.4, per Pro Football Focus.

Those issues cropped up again during Thursday’s OTA practice, with teammate Devin Asiasi beating Dugger vertically for a big gain. But they should be fixable as Dugger continues to accumulate his experience.

Dugger already is a valuable player for New England. If he cleans up his coverage and continues to advance in other aspects, he could become a true game-changer.

MOST TO PROVE
Dugger. His ceiling is sky-high.

SLEEPER TO WATCH
Bryant impressed a lot of people inside the organization with his play last season. A self-described “Swiss Army knife,” he flashed his versatility as an undrafted rookie, playing everywhere from slot corner to free safety to linebacker in New England’s dime package.

A starting job could be in Bryant’s future.

More Patriots positional previews: tight ends, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks

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