Facing an offense that had led the league in scoring just one year ago and is still among the most potent in the game, the New England Patriots relied heavily on the contributions from their highest draft pick this year: Kyle Dugger, who was selected 37th overall in April, was named a starter and on the field for 56 of a possible 66 defensive snaps. He helped limit one of the NFL’s most dangerous rushing attempts due to his versatility and athletic skillset.
Halfway through his rookie season, the second-round selection appears to be trending upward. This is an encouraging development for a Patriots defense that has had its fair share of issues over the first half of the season, especially considering Dugger’s backstory.
He saw his senior season at Lenoir-Rhyne come to a premature end after just seven games due to a finger injury — the second time during his college career that he missed considerable time due to a medical issue — and later had to adapt to life in the pros without the benefit of a normal offseason: the Coronavirus pandemic forced the league to move all workouts to a virtual forum, making the transition from college a challenging one for first-year players.
Dugger might have been even more impacted than other rookies given that he played against inferior competition at the Division-II level. This plus the lack of a preseason contributed to the comparatively quiet start to his career: while he did see regular action over the first six games of his career, he played more of a rotational role within the Patriots’ deep and experienced secondary before an ankle injury forced him to miss two games.
The 24-year-old eventually returned in Week 9 against the New York Jets, but was used in limited fashion. Six days later, however, he played the best game of his career so far — showing just how high his ceiling can be within New England’s defensive backfield.
“He was involved in quite a few plays, but I thought he pursued well, tackled well and gave us some perimeter run force, which was a big part of the game,” head coach Bill Belichick said about the youngster during a media conference call on Monday. “A lot of the running game was directed toward the perimeter and the outside, so he definitely helped us there and we got some good interior play, as well, on some of the inside plays. Maybe that helped push the ball out a little bit, I don’t know.”
Dugger finished the game with a team-high 12 tackles, including one on a stuffed run. He also registered a quarterback disruption when blitzing from the blindside perimeter against Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. His biggest play, however, might have come 30 seconds left on the clock: Dugger tackled fellow rookie J.K. Dobbins after a minimal gain on a 3rd-and-7, preventing the Ravens’ running back from getting out of bounds and setting up a fourth down that was ultimately not converted.
A miss there could have helped the Ravens preserve some time in the six-point contest, and possibly get into Hail Mary range. Alas, Dugger’s tackle basically ended all hopes of a successful comeback.
“My mindset was to just tackle and keep the ball right in front of us without going out of bounds. We were super excited at the point, so the main focus was keeping it in bounds and tackle,” he said after the game.
“It was really just by taking it one day at a time and going into practice just like I would in any other week by getting into the film and getting into what I have to get into specifically for myself in order to executive going into today’s game. It comes down to the playbook, film and execution.”
Execute Dugger did, and the first start of his career therefore ended in successful fashion. After the game, the young defensive back showed himself appreciative of the opportunity to play a prominent role against an opponent that was listed as a 7-point favorite by the bookmakers heading into the weekend.
“It felt great and definitely was a blessing to be able to get out there and play with the guys. The energy was great, and the win was great so there are definitely no complaints tonight,” he said.
While one game does not a successful rookie season make, Dugger and the Patriots as a whole should feel good about where he and other members of the rookie class — most prominently sixth-round offensive lineman Michael Onwenu — are at at this point in their respective campaigns.
“When we started the season, those were really like preseason games for them,” said Belichick. “I mean, it was their first action in the NFL. We are ways past that and I think there’s certainly been some growth, but we have a long way to go. We’ll see what kind of progress they can make over the second half of the season and what opportunities they get, whether they’re earned or whether they’re through necessity if we have injuries at positions and so forth, and see what they’re able to do with those opportunities.”