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Wonder how important the Senior Bowl really is? Look no further than Patriots safety Kyle Dugger.

Related: Revisiting the Patriots’ Senior Bowl draft arrivals from 2010 through 2020

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

While the Scouting Combine had to be canceled because of the Coronavirus pandemic, the NFL’s talent evaluators still have a chance to get a close look at some of the top draft prospects at this year’s Senior Bowl. The event is currently taking place in Mobile, Alabama, and features some of college football’s best players — from top-tier wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Kadarius Toney to potential first-round quarterback Mac Jones.

The Senior Bowl is more than just a meeting of big-name prospects, however: it also gives players with a small-school background an opportunity to showcase their talents against top-tier competition for possibly the first time in their careers. It is therefore a vital evaluation tool for scouts and coaches trying to get as complete a picture as possible.

Just take New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger as an example of that.

Before he was drafted in the second round and went on to become a versatile member of the Patriots’ starting secondary, Dugger was an uber-athletic prospect who had spent his entire college career playing against lower-level competition at Lenoir-Rhyne. While he dominated at the Division-II school, the question was whether or not his skillset would also translate to the NFL and against far superior opposition.

With one year of hindsight we now know that it did, but last spring there were serious questions about the enormous jump he would have to make — especially during an offseason as challenging as 2020’s. This is where his Senior Bowl performance came in, as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged during his post-draft media conference call.

“I think the Senior Bowl really helped Kyle,” Belichick said. “He was running a pro defense against a pro offense with soon-to-be pro players. Whether it was one-on-one drills, catching punts, tackling, I think you could really see he was able to compete very favorably at that level of competition and his scheme represents something close to what we’d be doing. It was a short window, but it was a full week of practice, a game.

“I think I saw a lot of improvement during the week and feel like this is a kid that’s smart, that works hard, that has a lot of ability. ... Without the Senior Bowl, it certainly would have been for me a lot tougher projection if he wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Three months after his Senior Bowl outing, Dugger heard his name called on Day Two of the draft: Belichick and the Patriots selected him with the 37th overall pick in the second round — an investment the team was comfortable making after his performance in Mobile both during the practices leading up to the game and the contest itself.

“Played well at his level of competition; held his own at the Senior Bowl against better competition,” said then-Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio about Dugger’s performance during the exhibition contest shortly after he was drafted. “One of the things you like to see or you look for is the player like that with that background to see how they hold up in that environment. He acquitted himself fairly well.”

As for Dugger himself, he also noted that the Senior Bowl played a big role for him during the pre-draft process.

“The Senior Bowl, for me, it was huge,” the 24-year-old said during the 2020 season. “I loved every second of it. I walked away from it seeing places I could grow, seeing that film from the Senior Bowl and seeing where I was ineffective and where I made mistakes and said, ‘Okay, I can take my game to a much higher level after this.’”

Dugger certainly did just that during his first year in the system, delivering one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the Belichick era in New England. The Lenoir-Rhyne product did not just make the impressive jump to the NFL level but also carved out a valuable role in the Patriots’ defensive backfield — playing primarily as a box safety, but also moving to deeper alignments and even the slot and perimeter cornerback spots at times.

As for this year’s Senior Bowl, the question is whether not other small-school prospects can deliver similar performances like Dugger and therefore establish themselves as potential targets for New England or other teams present at the event.

This year’s edition certainly features some candidates, even though it remains to be seen if they will end up getting drafted as early as Dugger.

Three offensive linemen are worth keeping an eye on in that regard: tackles Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State) and Spencer Brown (Northern Iowa) as well as interior lineman David Moore (Grambling State). As for other positions, South Dakota State wide receiver Cade Johnson or defensive edge Elerson Smith out of Northern Iowa are two of the more intriguing FCS candidates to take the field in Mobile this week.

They are all trying to follow in Kyle Dugger’s footsteps, and impress those present for the workouts. And — Who knows? — maybe the Patriots are among them once again.