The first four players coming off the board on Day Two of the NFL draft all came from powerhouse schools: Clemson, USC, Georgia, and Alabama. Then came the fifth pick of the day, and the New England Patriots entered the virtual stage. As they so often have under head coach Bill Belichick, they were the ones to zig while other teams were zagging, and went to a Division-II school that didn’t see one of its players get drafted since 2000.
Lenoir-Rhyne may not have the same pedigree as the other schools who produce big-time prospects on an annual basis, but the school did mold the second safety to hear his name called during this year’s draft: Kyle Dugger, who was picked by the Patriots with the 37th overall selection despite his small-school background and the team already having considerable depth and talent employed in its own defensive backfield.
Dugger, however, was too impressive a prospect to pass — and in fact one of three players New England had a close eye on before the second day of the draft was kicked off, according to Patriots director of player personnel, Nick Caserio. As a result, the 24-year-old will take his talents to New England and become a part of what was the best secondary in pro football just a year ago. How his role within the unit will ultimately look like remains to be seen, but his former coach does not see a problem when it comes to fit.
“He can play nine spots on the field,” former Lenoir-Rhyne defensive coordinator Joel Taylor said about the second-round draft pick who once was his pupil in a recent pre-draft interview with Bruce Feldman of The Athletic. “So whoever becomes his defensive coordinator will have fun with him. A guy like him gives you the ability to be very creative with schemes and be multiple without changing packages.”
While the Patriots do not have a defensive coordinator in title as of yet, whoever is calling the shots in 2020 — whether it is Belichick himself, or one of his assistant coaches like Jerod Mayo or Steve Belichick — will get to insert the chess-piece-type defender in the lineup and try to take advantage of an impressive athletic skillset as Taylor pointed out: “You have guys that can run and jump but can’t play football. He can play the game. His upside is high.”
Drew Cronic, who served as Lenoir-Rhyne’s head coach during the last two seasons and saw Dugger’s rise to NFL draft prospect first hand, also had some high words about the defensive back when he spoke about him with Chase Goodbread of NFL.com last year: “You get a guy at a small college like him once every 20 years, maybe. If he was at Clemson, at Georgia, at Alabama, one of those places, he’d be playing. He’d be starting.”
Dugger is not expected to serve as a starter in New England just yet, but as Taylor pointed out his upside is a high one. After all, he brings a combination of size, playmaking ability and versatility to the equation that is rare. Just look at his combine numbers: the only Division II player invited measured at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, and also ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds while registered a 42-inch vertical jump as well as an 11-foot-2 broad jump.
Dugger turned heads at the scouting combine and the Senior Bowl, and it helped him move from a little-known school to the ranks of the pros. And if his former coaches are to be believed, he will leave his mark due to his impressive talent and versatile skillset. Drafting a safety out of Lenoir-Ryhne may not have been the expected move by the Patriots, but it certainly was a highly intriguing one.