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Film room: What second-round draft pick Kyle Dugger will bring to the Patriots’ defense and special teams

Related: Getting drafted by the Patriots felt like Christmas for Kyle Dugger

Reese’s Senior Bowl Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

After trading down from the first round to accumulate more selections on Day Two, New England Patriots spent the first of the picks acquired in their trade with the Los Angeles Chargers to bolster their safety depth chart. The group may already be among the deepest in the NFL — starters Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are backed up by Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks — but the Patriots decided to add another high-upside player anyway.

That player is Kyle Dugger, who spent his college career at little-known Lenoir-Rhyne but still proved himself one of the better safety prospects entering the draft this year. His versatility, athletic skillset and abilities to contribute not just as a defensive back but possibly a punt returner as well made him an enticing player early in Round Two: the Patriots invested the 37th overall selection in the 24-year-old.

What exactly does he bring to the table, though? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.

Coverage abilities

While Dugger spent his college career at the Division-II level, he still looked comfortable when going against improved competition at the Senior Bowl in late January. During the game, he saw considerable action as a deep-field safety responsible for taking on tight ends such as Dayton’s Adam Trautman — one of the better players at his position in the draft and who was later selected by the New Orleans Saints in the third round.

The Dugger-Trautman battle included an impressive breakup to prevent a possible touchdown pass down the seam as well as the defender diagnosing an out-breaking route quickly and showcasing his sideline-to-sideline range:

On the first play, Dugger showcased one of his most impressive skills: his ability to use his long frame to make an impact on arriving balls. The pass to Trautman was placed very well, but the safety was able to get his hands around the tight end’s frame to knock the football free for an incompletion. On the second play (0:19), his impressive closing speed and sound tackling is on display as Trautman fails to run away from Dugger — he drags him down after only a minimal gain to prevent a possible score.

“Players like Kyle that came from a small school, to be able to see him work against some of the other top players in the country that you just didn’t see in college was very beneficial to him and for us to see that,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick later said about Dugger’s Senior Bowl performance. “That would be a good example of not only being able to evaluate him defensively but also just watch him handle the ball on punts and so forth, not great conditions down there in Mobile. Those were good evaluation periods”

Big-play skills

Dugger was primarily used as a deep safety at Lenoir-Rhyne, and he developed into a consistent playmaker for the team: he finished his college career with 10 interceptions as well as 36 additional pass-breakups. His strong natural ball skills in complemented by his explosiveness and ability to climb the ladder and attack the football at its highest point all contributed to his big-play skills in the secondary:

The level of competition was nowhere near what Dugger will experience in the NFL, but he did show some enticing traits when attacking the football that should translate well to the next level. Just take a look at the third of the plays featured in this clip (0:24): the safety recognizes the out-breaking route quickly, arrives immediately thanks to his reactionary skills and short-area burst, and boxes out the intended pass catcher to come away with the interception.

Once he has the football in his hands, Dugger turns into a threat as a return man as evidenced by his career numbers: he averaged 16.4 yards per interception return and ran one of them back for a touchdown. The first clip illustrates his skills in this area, as he returns the pick almost 65 yards due to a combination of straight-line speed and vision — one that also makes him dangerous as a punt returner. Speaking of which...

Special teams abilities

Given the Patriots’ depth at safety ahead of him on the depth chart, Dugger’s quickest way onto the field in 2020 will come in the kicking game as a coverage player and a returner on both kickoffs and punts. He was especially productive in the latter role while with the Bears: despite his size — he was measured at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds at the scouting combine — Dugger averaged 13.9 yards per punt return (929 on 67 run-backs) during his college career and scored a total of six touchdowns.

One of those touchdowns, against UVAW, is a perfect example for his skills in the return game:

The kick coverage itself may have been highly questionable, but Dugger still showcased some tremendous vision, balance and elusiveness on the play to run the kick back 65 yards while breaking multiple tackling attempts. While the Patriots’ Gunner Olszewski performed well on punt returns during his 2019 rookie season and averaged 9.0 yards per runback, Dugger should therefore be able to challenge him for that role right away — especially considering that his upside on defense is a lot higher than Olszewski’s on the offensive side of the ball.

Run defense

While Dugger enters the NFL with more experience as a free/deep safety than a box defender in the mold of New England’s own Patrick Chung, he can make an impact as a downhill player in the running game as well. At the Senior Bowl, he played mostly deep but also displayed his willingness to attack running lanes every now and then and also showed his skillset as a fundamentally sound tackler that is going for the wrap-up rather than the big shot:

While his impact in the running game was somewhat limited at the Senior Bowl, Dugger did make big plays in this area time and again at Lenoir-Rhyne as the following compilation of clips shows:

Dugger’s range as a sideline-to-sideline defender and burst to attack downhill are fantastic, and can make a major impact when he properly diagnoses plays. Just take a look at the second play featured (0:06): despite lining up 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, Dugger quickly reads the hand-off and starts charging downfield in an instant. This, in turn, allowed him to stop the play from getting to the perimeter and limiting the yardage gained.

Dugger will need to adjust to the more complex concepts and increased speed that he will face in the NFL, and show that he will not overcommit against misdirection plays, but he has the necessary tools in his box to become a strong run defender when lining up closer to the box in a safety/linebacker hybrid role like the one played by Patrick Chung.

Room for improvement

As with every rookie, Dugger also enters the NFL with plenty of room for improvement. Even though he looked like the proverbial man among boys when playing Lenoir-Rhyne, for example, he did show some technical issues as a blocker and did not always properly wrap up when taking on ball-carriers. This could become a problem at the next level, even though the Patriots’ coaching staff should be able to correct it.

There are also some instances on his film of Dugger taking poor angles to the ball. Both plays featured below show him overrunning plays by moving too far up the field and losing his leverage as a result. As is the case with the inconsistent tackling technique he displayed from time-to-time, though, the Patriots should be able to correct those issues.

Finally, Dugger also showed some weaknesses when playing off-man coverage. While he should be able to keep up with any tight ends and most receivers from the slot due to his short-area flexibility and overall range, he needs to clean up his footwork: he had too many false steps and bad bites when players incorporated fakes at the top of their routes in order to shake free. This in combination with a somewhat slow processor to counter caused some problems even at the Division-II level:

All in all, however, Dugger’s skillset as an all-around safety and punt return threat is tremendous and should help him make an impact fairly quickly in his NFL career. Will he be a Day One starter in the secondary? Probably not, but he does give the Patriots a high-upside developmental option to groom behind veterans Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung — and to one day take over for one of them.