Despite not having the benefit of a normal offseason schedule or any preseason games, Kyle Dugger quickly burst onto the scene in his rookie campaign. Filling the third safety role alongside veterans Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips, the second-round draft pick played a valuable role in the New England Patriots’ defensive backfield during the 2020 season.
Appearing in 14 of a possible 16 games, Dugger finished the year with 64 tackles and repeatedly showcased his impressive athleticism and — despite entering the NFL from Division-II’s Lenoir-Rhyne — quick processor. Despite all that, however, the transition to the NFL level still proved to be a challenging one at times in one area in particular: comfortability.
As Dugger himself acknowledged during a recent media conference call, it took him some time to get comfortable in the New England defensive system.
“Right before my injury, me getting hurt, was actually the first game that it started to slow down a little bit for,” Dugger said. “Of course, after coming back, I had to kind of readjust. The Denver game was probably when I first started to feel a little bit more comfortable. And then, towards the end of the season as well, things started to become a little easier.”
Following the game against the Broncos, Dugger had to sit out two games because of an ankle injury. He played only a handful of snaps in his return against the New York Jets in Week 10 before one week later playing a career-high (at least until that point) 85 percent of defensive snaps.
From that point on, Dugger was entrenched into the secondary and actually started seven of New England’s final eight games of the year. Heading into his second season as a pro, the goal is therefore clear: continuing on that path and getting even more comfortable whenever on the field.
“I feel way more comfortable. Just in general, in the defense, I feel much more comfortable,” Dugger said. “It’s definitely that things are a little bit slower for me and I’m seeing things a little slower, a little easier. I definitely feel more comfortable already.”
Whether or not this increased comfortability will lead to an increased role as well — possibly seeing more deep snaps as opposed to the “star” role he played for much of 2020 — remains to be seen, though. Dugger, however, said he would welcome the challenge.
“I can’t really say, I’m not sure if I’m going to be playing back there”, he noted. “What I could see, anything is possible. I do feel comfortable back there, so whether that’s going to be the case or not I’m not sure. But it could be possible.”
In order for him to grab an even bigger role than the one he held last season, and help the Patriots replace the retired Patrick Chung, Dugger is well aware that preparation is key. He said as much on Tuesday when asked about his general knowledge of the game and the importance of preparing properly — something Chung also told both him and fellow second-year defender Josh Uche earlier during the offseason.
“Anything you skip out on, anything you fail to educate yourself on about your opponent as a team, whatever the situation is has a high chance of you being exposed if you don’t know that or you don’t have that knowledge,” the 25-year-old said. “So, it’s really about not taking any shortcuts in your preparation and really doing everything you need to do in preparing no matter how long it takes or how much needs to be done.”
For Dugger, this preparation process is the key to feeling comfortable. It also does not just include studying, but improving one’s technique as well.
“I’ve really focused on my technique and my steps, being more efficient with my feet,” he said about his offseason goals. “Making sure that I was doing everything, taking out all the unnecessary movements and really just getting more comfortable with the technique.”
The result will be seen once the Patriots return to the spotlight in training camp, preseason and ultimately the regular season. But if the past 12 months are any indication, Dugger should be able to position himself well to take the famous second-year jump — and to become much more comfortable in the defense as he might have been at times as a rookie.