The offseason brought plenty of turnover to the New England Patriots’ top-ranked defense, and the secondary was also not immune to it. After the team traded number three safety Duron Harmon to the Detroit Lions in March, it also had to watch starting strong safety Patrick Chung opt out of the 2020 season. To fill the void created by the departures, the Patriots will likely turn to their offseason additions.
Not only did the team add veteran Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis as unrestricted free agents, it also selected Kyle Dugger in the second round of the draft before signing Myles Bryant as a rookie free agent. All four have factored into the mix at this point in training camp, and could very well play prominent roles on the team — either on defense or special teams — once the regular season begins.
Along the way, they also left a positive impression on the Patriots’ longest tenured defender: safety Devin McCourty, who is entering his 11th season with the team, spoke about the new arrivals during a media conference call following Tuesday’s practice.
“Those guys have been putting in a lot of effort all the way back to the spring, to just know the defense, getting to know each other,” the team captain said. “Even though it was not the usual spring, we had a good time just in our DB meetings. We have a lot of guys that are jokesters in there, and I think the new guys fit in well just cracking jokes and trying to get to know each other in a personal and relationship way. I think that was so special about our group in years past, we’ve all had great relationships.
“I feel like this group is starting to bond. Obviously, it takes time, but being out there on the field and communicating — we’ve had everybody play together so far. We’ll just continue to work on that communication. We have a lot of guys outside at corner returning, so it makes it easier with the veteran leadership from those guys and into the safety position group. Just making sure we keep doing it, putting in the time. Last year, sometimes, some of that stuff just happened naturally because of the years of experience working together and getting it done at a high level.”
While all of the new guys saw plenty of action over the last three days worth of training camp practices, one stands out among them as the most actively involved: Kyle Dugger.
The 37th overall selection of this year’s draft has had an impressive string of performances since the Patriots put on their full pads for the first time on Monday. He registered one interception each on Tuesday and Wednesday — one against Jarrett Stidham, the other against Cam Newton — and found himself around the ball on a regular basis. Furthermore, New England’s coaching staff is not shying away from using him in multiple roles as both a deep safety and closer to the box in a Chung-like role.
“I think it’s been good,” said McCourty about working with the first-year defensive back. “I’m always excited when we get new rookies in and guys that are eager to learn. He’s been like that. I’ve shared some messages with him before we started, just talking to him about the defense, about being a professional a little bit. But he’s been like that — I would say him and Myles in our room, the two new defensive backs, both.
“We try to quiz them. We try to ask them questions to catch them off guard. They answer them. You can tell they’re both going home and studying at night, making sure that they’re prepared. I think when you see guys doing that, it shows up on the field.”
While Bryant has a tougher road ahead of him as an undrafted rookie trying to make a name for himself within the deepest defensive backfield in the league, Dugger already seems to have adapted well to life in the NFL.
This was not a given considering that he spent his college days at Divion-II’s Lenoir-Rhyne. After going up against teams such as Tusculum, Limestone and St. Augustine’s — schools that have had a combined two players drafted since the NFL-AFL merger — he now has to adapt to the speed and physicality of the pro level. While still early in the process, the 24-year-old seems to be adapting well to the improved opposition he faces on a daily basis.
“Obviously they’re far from perfect, but it shows up the times that they get things right,” said McCourty about Dugger and fellow rookie Myles Bryant. “Sometimes it’s some of the more advanced stuff, but you can tell they’re putting in the work, they’re trying to learn from everybody in our meeting rooms — whether it’s myself, whether it’s [Jason McCourty] or [Stephon Gilmore], trying to give them a coaching point from our experience. You can tell those guys are hanging on to it like a sponge.”
As for Dugger in particular, McCourty seemed pleased with his development up until this point.
“Dugg’s been really good,” he said. “I think any time you can get in there with a guy and just play together and talk to him and learn how we play and play off each other, it’s been really good and he’s got a chance to play with all of our safeties so far. So we’ve just gotta keep building that.”
Following a tumultuous offseason, the Patriots defense will ask more from its rookies than in years past. Players such as second-round linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings could play prominent roles on defense, while undrafted players like Myles Bryant and De’Jon Harris could also find themselves on the team if they continue to show up in practice. The leader of that youth movement, however, is Kyle Dugger.