Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with New England’s highest draft pick this year.
Name: Kyle Dugger
Jersey number: TBD
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-1, 220 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Dugger’s experience in the NFL is limited to six weeks of virtual workouts and studying sessions: the Patriots selected him in the second round of the draft in late April, but the Coronavirus pandemic has prohibited him from participating in any on-field practice sessions since joining the team. Nevertheless, the youngster does offer considerable experience from his six-year college career at Lenoir-Rhyne — including as a starting defensive back during all four of his non-redshirt campaigns.
Between arriving in Hickory in 2014 and leaving after his redshirt senior season, Dugger started every one of the 42 combined games he appeared in. Serving primarily as a deep safety in the Bears’ defense, he dominated the competition at the Division-II level: not only did he register 10 interceptions in four years — including one that he returned for a touchdown in his senior year — he also finished his college career with six forced fumbles and six recoveries as well as an impressive 36 pass deflections.
Along the way, he also proved himself one of the most productive special teamers in all of college football. During his time at Lenoir-Rhyne, Dugger averaged an outstanding 13.9 yards per punt return and ran six total kicks back for scores. Furthermore, he blocked a pair of kicks during his redshirt freshman year. All in all, he did everything you would ask from a small-school prospect over the last few years: Dugger consistently was the best player on the field — three straight first-team All-SAC nominations are proof of that.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off another very good season after which he was named to the All-SAC squad as both a defensive back and a returnman, Dugger decided to stay in school for his final year of college player eligibility. The decision initially proved to be a good one: Dugger posted some very good numbers again early on during his senior campaign and regularly showed off his intriguing combination of size and athletic skills both on the defensive side of the ball and on special teams.
Over the first seven games of the season, Dugger played his usual role as the Bears’ primary deep safety and registered a pair of interceptions — both coming during the season opener, with the first being returned 30 yards for a touchdown and the second 63 yards with no score. In general, he continued to show why he was one of the best defensive backs in the nation regardless of divisional affiliation: Dugger’s range and reactionary skills proved to be impressive, as did his willingness to play a physical game.
All those skills were also regularly on display in the kicking game. While opposing teams punted to him only 12 times over the first seven games of the 2019 season, Dugger made the most out of every one of them: he returned the punts for a combined 175 yards and an average of 14.6 yards per runback. He also returned two kicks for touchdowns, with both scores coming during the first quarter of Lenoir-Rhyne’s early-October game agains Wise. Dugger returned the punts 68 and 67 yards, respectively.
As terrific as he played early on during his senior season, it did come to a premature end after just seven games when he suffered a finger injury — the second time during his college career that he missed considerable time due to a medical issue (Dugger’s redshirt sophomore campaign came to an end after only one in-game appearance when he tore his meniscus during practice in September). That said, he was still named first-team All-American and entered the 2020 draft cycle as one of the better safety prospects.
What is his projected role? Dugger spent the majority of his college career serving as a deep safety in Lenoir-Rhyne’s nickel-based defensive alignment, and it is therefore possible that the Patriots see him in the same light while projecting him as the potential heir to long-time free safety Devin McCourty. That said, the rookie could also receive regular snaps as more of a downhill/box defender in the mold of Patrick Chung to take advantage of his size and play-recognition skills.
What is his special teams value? Dugger offers plenty of value in the kicking game due to his tremendous return skills. As noted above, he averaged 13.9 yards per punt return and ran six total kicks back for scores. While the quality of his competition at Lenoir-Rhyne needs to be called into question, Dugger’s upside as a returnman cannot be denied: he was downright electric at times. Add the fact that he also has experience on coverage teams and as a kickoff returner — he ran back nine kickoffs for 180 yards in 2018 — and you get a potential Day One impact player in the game’s third phase.
Does he have positional versatility? His ability to play multiple roles in the defensive secondary is what makes Dugger such an intriguing player. He has the sideline-to-sideline range to be productive no matter where he aligns, and also has proven himself capable of playing both as a deep fielder and a strong safety. Furthermore, he has experience at cornerback (a role he played during his 2015 redshirt freshman year) and even as a running back (Dugger had a five-yard carry in 2018).
What is his salary cap situation? The final of the Patriots’ draft picks to sign his rookie contract, Dugger agreed to a four-year, $8.33 contract with the club that also includes a team option for the fifth season. As part of this pact, he will hit the team’s books with a salary cap number of $1.51 million in 2020 — a reasonable sum for a player of his draft status and potential upside, and one that could only be reduced via trade this year. Needless to say, however, that such a move will not happen.
What is his roster outlook? Given his status as the 37th overall selection in this year’s draft, Dugger is a lock to be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year. The question, of course, will be in which capacity. The 24-year-old is a realistic candidate to take on an extensive role as a returnman on special teams, but could also see prominent snaps as a third/fourth safety behind McCourty and Chung. Either way, he offers plenty of value both on defense and in the kicking game.