QUINCY, Mass. — For years, Patrick Chung was one of the New England Patriots’ best and most important defensive players.
He believes his successor can be even better.
Speaking Sunday night before a New England Free Jacks rugby match at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium, the recently retired strong safety shared a ringing endorsement of Kyle Dugger, the Patriots’ top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Dugger impressed as an NFL rookie last season, displaying a rare blend of size, athleticism, versatility and physicality as he handled many of Chung’s usual responsibilities. He adopted the latter’s uniform number following Chung’s retirement, switching from No. 35 to No. 23 this offseason, and projects as a starter and key contributor in New England’s revamped defense.
“I think he can be really good,” Chung said. “He’s young, he’s raw, he has the size, he has the instincts. He asked me for the number, and I said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I told him to take it over. And I pray to God that he’s way better than I am, because that’s only going to help us as Patriots. Hopefully he can get to that point. I believe that he can. He has all the intangibles, so I’m praying for that.”
Chung opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns but remained a valuable resource for Dugger, sharing tips and guidance with the former Division II standout while he watched from afar.
“I definitely like to model my game after him,” Dugger, who spent much of the spring studying film of Chung’s practice reps, said in May. “The roles he played, the versatility he had, the physicality — everything he brought to the defense.”
Before the Patriots hit the field for organized team activities, Dugger asked Chung for permission to wear No. 23 — an unnecessary but appreciated gesture.
“It was simple — he just asked me,” Chung said. “I’m like, ‘Is that what you want?’ And he goes, ‘That was the plan.’ I said, ‘All right, take it. Just make sure you take over.’ And that was it. … That’s huge respect. A lot of people don’t have to ask. If (a number is) open, they’ll take it. But for him to call me and ask when he didn’t have to, I appreciate that. And he’s a good player. Hopefully he can be great and better than me. I really, truly hope for that.”
Chung, who started 112 games and won three Super Bowls over his 10 seasons with New England, officially announced his retirement May 18 after having what he called “probably the hardest conversation I’ve had in a while” with head coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick lauded Chung after his announcement, calling the 33-year-old “a special person and player, one of the pillars of our program and truly in the upper echelon of the many greats I have had the privilege to coach.”
“I respect him; he respects me, from the support of player to coach, me and Bill,” Chung said Sunday. “So that was probably the hardest thing. I felt like I was just letting him down, but that’s something I had to do for my family and for me, so it was something that needed to be done.”
Chung remains involved in the New England sports landscape through his role as a part-owner of the Free Jacks, the local Major League Rugby franchise. Former Patriots special teams ace Nate Ebner also has an ownership stake in the team, which closed out its first full season Sunday with a 22-19 victory over Atlanta-based Rugby ATL.
“(Rugby is) a very interesting sport,” Chung said. “Over (my) time with Nate Ebner, I got to see how this game really is. I learned a lot just being next to him for years and talking a lot, and I like the sport. It’s just constant chaos. Guys like this try to rip each other’s head off and then have a beer after. That’s a good family and a good environment for me. I like that.”
Though he seems to be enjoying retired life, Chung wouldn’t slam the door shut on a potential return to the gridiron.
“Listen, I’m still young,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
The Patriots are scheduled to hold their first training camp practice next Wednesday.