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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Kyle Dugger is a realistic candidate for the second-year jump

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: S Cody Davis

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series continues with safety Kyle Dugger.

Hard facts

Name: Kyle Dugger

Position: Safety

Jersey number: 23

Opening day age: 25

Size: 6-foot-1, 220 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Dugger entered the NFL as a second-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2020, and went on to appear in 14 games during his rookie season. Along the way, the youngster established himself as a starting-caliber defensive back and proved his tremendous upside. That said, his experience at the pro level is limited after only one season — one that was heavily impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic and saw the cancellation of both offseason workouts and preseason play.

Dugger did gain plenty of experience during his six-year career at Lenoir-Rhyne, though. Starting all 42 games he appeared in, Dugger served primarily as a deep safety in the Bears’ defense and 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 2020 season look like? Even though his senior season at Lenoir-Rhyne was cut short due to a finger injury, Dugger was able to participate in the pre-draft events he was invited to. He performed at both the Senior Bowl and the Scouting Combine, catching the eye of New England’s decision makers. With his Senior Bowl performance in particular standing out, the Patriots did not shy away from investing the 37th overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft to bring Dugger aboard.

Once in New England, Dugger had to deal with the realities of pro football in a pandemic. With Covid-19 forcing the league to cancel offseason workouts and preseason games, and with training camp taking place in a non-traditional setting as well, the rookie had a comparatively slow start into his NFL career: Dugger did see regular snaps over the first five weeks of the season, but was used primarily in a rotational and kicking game capacity while getting used to the speed and complex schemes at the next level.

After an ankle injury forced him to miss two games and see only a handful of snaps in a third, however, he broke out. Dugger still had some expected ups and downs given his limited experience, but he developed into a starter-level defender for the Patriots from Week 10 on: he started seven of the final eight games of the season and was on the field for 73.8 percent of defensive snaps (401 of 543). Dugger’s late-season development was one of the few positive stories coming out of New England’s challenging 2020 season.

In total, Dugger was on the field in 14 of the Patriots’ 16 games as a rookie and played 518 of a possible 1,017 snaps on the defensive side of the ball (50.9%). Along the way, he registered 59 tackles — 30 in the passing game, 29 in the running game — and allowed just 8 catches for 113 yards on 17 targets. He also notched a quarterback hurry on 10 blitz calls and even was a regular contributor on special teams: Dugger was on the field for 182 of 399 snaps (45.8%) in the game’s third phase; only five of his teammates saw more action.

Dugger was used on five of New England’s special teams units. He was given regular opportunities on kickoff and punt coverage teams — registering 5 tackles — and also fielded two kickoffs early during the season: he averaged 23.5 yards on his two runbacks. While not establishing himself as the Patriots’ number one kickoff returner, and despite some growing pains at the safety position, Dugger’s rookie season can be seen as a success and solid foundation to keep building on.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Dugger’s progression in 2020 is a sign of things to come. While he started out as a rotational player, he took on a starter role over the second half of the season. He did have his fair share of growing pains, but his usage indicated that the Patriots coaching staff is feeling confident in his potential contributions moving forward. Dugger, who switched jersey numbers during the offseason from No. 35 to Patrick Chung’s old No. 23, should therefore be expected to see considerable playing time either in his 2020 role as a box/strong safety or as a deep man in the mold of veteran Devin McCourty.

What is his special teams value? As mentioned above, Dugger was a core special teamer for the Patriots in 2020. While his usage in the game’s third phase might be impacted by his exposure on defense — more snaps as a safety might mean fewer snaps in the kicking game — the second-year man offers experience to help out once again: Dugger was a five-unit special teamer last season and also returned a pair of kickoffs.

Does he have positional versatility? According to Pro Football Focus’ positional tracking, Dugger played at least 34 snaps at five different positions as a rookie. He primarily aligned as a box safety (297 snaps) throughout the year, but also was moved around the formation: Dugger also lined up as a slot cornerback (94), free safety (50), perimeter cornerback (43) and even along the defensive line (34). As his experience in the system grows even further, so should his usage as a versatile chess piece within the Patriots’ secondary.

What is his salary cap situation? Dugger agreed to a four-year, $8.33 million rookie contract with the Patriots after getting drafted in the second round last spring. As part of this pact, he will hit the team’s books with a salary cap number of $1.89 million in 2021 — a reasonable sum for a player of his role and developmental upside, and one that could only be reduced via trade this year. Needless to say that such a move will not happen.

What is his roster outlook? His draft status alone makes Dugger a lock to be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year, but it is not the only reason why he should be given a prominent role. A realistic candidate to make the famous second-year jump, Dugger projects as a starting-caliber defender in 2021 and potential heir at two different positions: he could fill the box safety role previously played by Patrick Chung — one that could also go to Adrian Phillips as well — or maybe be groomed as Devin McCourty’s heir as a free safety. Regardless of where he lines up, however, Dugger will likely see a lot of playing time in Year 2.