Can Patriots safety Kyle Dugger live up to the Year 2 hype?

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Perry: How Dugger can be a game-changer for Patriots in Year 2 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

You'd think we would've chewed 'em all up and spit 'em out by now. Over and over again.

When it comes to the Patriots' defense, the meaty topics to gnaw on have been abundant this offseason. And gnaw we have. 

How will the Stephon Gilmore contract situation be resolved? Do the Patriots have enough on that side of the ball to carry an offense with question marks at quarterback? How can Dont'a Hightower's return solve what ailed this unit last season? Will Matt Judon live up to his new contract? How will rookie second-rounder Christian Barmore impact Bill Belichick's pass rush?

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Those subjects have received more than their fair share of keystrokes and air time, yet there's still one angle pertaining to the Patriots defense that hasn't received enough hype to this point: Kyle Dugger is poised to become one of the most important players on the team.

His upward trajectory -- from Division 2 star, to Senior Bowl standout, to NFL Combine freak, to second-round pick, to Week 2 wrecking ball, to mid-season starter, to now a potentially-critical piece in defending modern-day offenses -- has been staggering to track. Almost unbelievable.

But, as his coach likes to say, it is what it is: remarkable.

And still, because of everything else going on with the Patriots roster, the idea that Dugger could be a game-changing defender in just his second year is one that seems to have flown under our collective radar.

As a rookie, the pride of Lenoir-Rhyne impressed Belichick to the point where -- even at the end of a losing season, when Belichick wasn't all that eager to dole out compliments -- he was generous in heaping praise upon the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder. 

"I would say Kyle’s the type of player that gets better every day," Belichick said back in December. "It doesn’t matter whether it’s kickoff coverage, kickoff return, third down, play-action. The more he sees it, the quicker he processes it, the quicker he reacts and the more consistent he becomes. 

"There are some things he hasn’t seen before that are maybe a little new for him, but once he’s seen it and identified it and you’ve explained it to him, he picks it up very quickly. I think physically, he has a good skill set to play close to the line or in a deep part of the field – zone to man coverage, blitz, can play in the kicking game. He has a lot of things that you like at that position, and again, he’s a smart, hardworking kid that will enable him to try to maximize all the skills that he has."

Those "skills" which Belichick barely touched upon happen to be elite-level athletic traits.

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To the numbers...

Next Gen Stats gave Dugger a 99 Athleticism Score, a metric that scores players from 50-to-99 to determine a player's overall athletic ability based on his combine measurables. Dugger and fellow 2020 second-rounder Jeremy Chinn were the first non-FBS safeties to score that highly since 2003. 

Dugger also scored a 9.56 out of 10.0 in Kent Platte's Relative Athletic Score metric thanks to his unusual frame, length (33-inch arms, almost 10.5-inch hands), speed (4.49-second 40 at the 2020 combine) and jumping ability. His 42-inch vertical and 134-inch broad jump placed him in the 99th percentile at his position for those tests.

For highly-drafted defensive backs with that level of explosiveness, results typically follow, as we found in our research from last offseason. But what was maybe most impressive about Dugger's rookie year was that he saw quick results after jumping from a level of college football that appeared to take place on a different planet than the one occupied by Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. 

And he did so with only a COVID-shortened offseason to ease his transition.

After seeing 11 plays in his pro debut in Week 1, Dugger played 34 snaps in a Week 2 loss to Seattle that featured multiple eyebrow-raising hits as a downhill player against both the run and the pass.

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He was limited by injury through the first half of the season, but Dugger joined the starting lineup in Week 10, and his instincts in the box flashed on a regular basis. According to Pro Football Focus, his average depth of tackle against the run (3.5 yards from the line of scrimmage) was third among all NFL safeties.

Dugger spent the bulk of his time close to the line of scrimmage at the linebacker level (43 percent of his overall workload, per PFF). But he was also used in the slot (13 percent), as a free safety (7 percent), a cornerback (6 percent), an outside linebacker (5 percent) and a special-teamer who played regularly on all four core units (26 percent).

"The guy is a special athlete," safety Devin McCourty told WEEI last season. "He does some things at practice so far at different times and we’re all like, ‘Damn, did you see that?’ It’s pretty cool to see and I know he’ll keep getting better. I can’t wait to watch his development the next couple of years."

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Dugger's combination of athleticism, alignment versatility, and off-the-field absorption of concepts led to some lofty comparisons last year. For instance, Dugger's Lenoir-Rhyne coaches felt the comparison to 2018 All-Pro Chargers safety Derwin James was apt last spring. Patriots safety Adrian Phillips soon followed suit.

James, whose last two seasons have been cut short due to injury, is the epitome of an imposing do-it-all safety when healthy. He played 38 percent of his snaps in the box as a rookie, 17 percent in the slot, and a whopping 20 percent as an outside 'backer. 

Phillips, who was with the Chargers from 2014-19, got an up-close look at James' behind-the-scenes work that allowed him to handle all those roles. To Phillips, Dugger's ability to process seemed familiar.

"The first thing that I noticed was [Dugger] is smart," Phillips said early last season. "We didn’t get a chance to meet in person for a long time because we did everything virtually. But going through the meetings, this is a guy that can pick up on the scheme real quick. 

"I would say this isn’t the easiest scheme to pick up. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but once you get it, you got it. And the way that he just picked it up and he’s able to talk ball, seeing that in a rookie, you really don’t see that a lot of times. The only other time that I’ve really seen that was with Derwin James."

The comparisons will continue this season. Dugger changed his jersey number from No. 35 and will be wearing Patrick Chung's No. 23. He told reporters earlier this offseason that he's been spending time watching film of both Chung and Patriots Hall of Famer Rodney Harrison to get a firmer grip on his responsibilities within Belichick's defense. 

While it's too early to draw a line from Harrison to Dugger, there are some similarities between the two. They are near carbon copies of one another in terms of their frames (Harrison was listed at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds); like Dugger, Harrison hailed from a small college football program at Western Illinois; Harrison was of course known for playing with an edge, and Dugger exhibited a familiar level of aggressiveness at times last season.

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Harrison has helped contribute to any existent Dugger hype, tepid as it seems. He told ESPN's Mike Reiss earlier this offseason that he's been a sounding board for the young safety, and that Belichick has been looking for "a young kid who can come in and do a lot of the things that he basically asked me to do. Kyle can be that."

That the kind of quote should have Patriots fans beside themselves with excitement, one would think. Some must be. But after a wild offseason roster overhaul, Dugger feels like a forgotten man to a certain extent.

Maybe it's the nature of the position Dugger plays. Safety is not widely considered a premium spot just based on the salaries the game's best haul in.

Maybe it's because the Patriots' safety depth chart is crowded at the top. McCourty and Phillips are expected to play key roles, which could theoretically limit Dugger's usage.

Maybe it's that it took some time before Dugger became a starter last season. And maybe because Patriots playoff hopes had dimmed considerably by then, people didn't put much stock into the workload he'd been handed. 

But despite our Tom E. Curran's best efforts, it feels as though the buzz around Dugger could be louder. 

It should be.

A rare athlete who showed as much promise as Dugger did jumping from D-2 to the NFL in the middle of a pandemic, a safety with a linebacker's mentality and the range and length to run with modern-day tight ends, Dugger is the type of moveable chess piece who can make a defense malleable even when it doesn't have time to substitute.

Need Dugger to park it next to Hightower and hold up against the run? Need him to cover running backs out of the backfield? Need him to provide some speed at the second level against an offense with a running quarterback? Need him to play deep when safeties rotate? Need him to spy a scrambling passer? All could be roles Dugger occupies on the fields behind Gillette Stadium in just a few weeks at training camp. 

Based on the brief impressive glimpses we saw from him this spring, and understanding the improbable arc of his career to this point, it should come as little surprise if Dugger is soon viewed as an indispensable piece to Belichick's defense.

The hype may be underwhelming now. Give it time.