Before Kyle Dugger heard his name called as the 37th overall draft pick four months ago, Lenoir-Rhyne did not have one of its player selected in two decades — not since defensive lineman John Milem was picked 150th overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2000.
Milem and Dugger are two of just five players the Bears have ever had drafted since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, with the latter by far the highest selection Lenoir-Rhyne has ever had. This fact alone speaks for how big the transition from the Division-II school to the New England Patriots is. Dugger, however, does not appear to be bothered by it based on his first training camp since entering the league: in fact, he has been a standout performer.
Trying to help fill the void created when veteran strong safety Patrick Chung opted out of the 2020 season, Dugger is fitting in well with the NFL’s best secondary. As his two interceptions during team drills last week illustrate, the 24-year-old has had no obvious problems so far adjusting to the pro game — a development that is also not lost on head coach Bill Belichick.
“Kyle’s a smart kid and he works really hard,” Belichick said about the rookie during a media conference call on Monday. “He takes coaching well and you can definitely see improvement, I would say not only from day-to-day, but in some cases from play-to-play.”
Dugger’s outstanding athleticism has helped him carve out a prominent role within the Patriots’ defensive backfield before a minor injury forced him to become a limited participant in practice late last week. No matter if lining up deep or playing closer to the box in a Chung-like role, he appears to be on a path towards earning prominent playing time when the regular season gets kicked off in not even three weeks.
“I think he’s got a good understanding of football and he’s a pretty instinctive player, so when you tell him something, he usually understands what you’re talking about, especially if he’s had any chance at all to experience it before,” said Belichick. “There are some things that he just hasn’t seen that might take a little longer to explain to him, just because he’s not familiar with them.
“But, he’s very coachable, he picks up things quickly and the things that he hasn’t seen before, once he sees them and can understand what the conflict is or what the situation is that we have to address, he’s been very good to make those adjustments and handle it the next time. We’ll see.”
Classic Belichick-speak aside, Dugger has had an impressive start to training camp and has been the most impactful of the Patriots’ rookies one week into the full-speed portion of camp. Nevertheless, his new head coach was quick to point out that a) he was not the only first-year player making constant progress, and b) that the challenges that await are far greater than those that lie behind.
“The wheel’s not spinning as fast as it’s going to spin,” said Belichick. “It’s going to get a lot faster here in coming days and weeks as our volume increases, as the volume of the offensive plays and formations and personnel matchups increase and so forth. Then you add all the situations into it that become to a degree overriding — like, what the particular situation is for end of the game and end of the half type plays or certain yardage distances that change the situation.
“We’ll see how all that comes together, but I’d say to this point, he along with all the rest of the rookies are making good progress, they’re making gains consistently, but it’s going to get harder than what it is now. It’s going to get a lot harder. So, we’ll see how all that goes as the degree of difficulty climbs.”