With mandatory minicamp in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with third-year safety Kyle Dugger.
Name: Kyle Dugger
Jersey number: 23
Opening day age: 26
Size: 6-foot-1, 220 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Before arriving in the NFL, Dugger spent six years at Lenoir-Rhyne. Starting all 42 games he appeared in, he 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 returned for a touchdown — he also finished his college career with six forced fumbles and six recoveries as well as an impressive 36 pass deflections. He furthermore was a highly productive special teamer.
Dugger’s outstanding college play in combination with a very good Senior Bowl performance prompted the Patriots to invest the 37th overall selection in the second round of the 2020 draft in him. Since then, Dugger has carved out a role as a versatile do-it-all member within the New England defensive backfield. As such, he appeared in a total of 30 regular season and playoff games games over his first two seasons as a pro, registering four interceptions as well as a fumble recovery.
Additionally, the Patriots also gave Dugger regular albeit not as prominent action in the kicking game. He received only limited opportunities as a return man after averaging an outstanding 13.9 yards per punt return in college — he ran back two kickoffs for 47 yards during his rookie campaign in the NFL — but was able to become an important member of the team’s kickoff and to a lesser degree punt coverage units. Playing those two roles, he combined to register 13 tackles in the game’s third phase.
What did his 2021 season look like? Dugger already showcased his immense promise during what was a challenging 2020 rookie season; the league’s Covid-19 limited his opportunities in his first offseason in the NFL; he also missed some time during the season because of an ankle injury. His outlook for 2021 was a far more favorable one, however, making Dugger a realistic candidate to take the famous second-year leap and further establish himself as a future cornerstone within the New England secondary.
Dugger was able to do that, despite again being for much of the year due to medical issues. He missed one game each because of Covid-19 (Week 13 in Buffalo) and a hand injury (Week 18 in Miami), while additionally dealing with hamstring, knee and ankle ailments as well. When all was said and done, the Lenoir-Rhyne product had seen action in 16 of New England’s 18 games and been on the field for a combined 780 of 1,135 defensive snaps. Despite his missed time, his playing time share of 68.7 percent ranked seventh on the team.
When on the field, Dugger was a clear difference maker for one of the best defenses in football. He registered four interceptions, while allowing opposing quarterbacks to go 35-for-53 against him for a combined 326 yards as well as four interceptions; the resulting passer rating of 76.5 is the equivalent of facing Chicago Bears part-time starter/backup Andy Dalton each week. Additionally, Dugger registered 88 tackles — 47 in the passing game and 41 against the run — and forced one fumble.
The Patriots also employed him as a part-time pass rusher — he notched a pair of quarterback pressures on 11 blitz calls — while moving him all over the formation. Dugger primarily aligned as a box safety (49.6%) or slot defender (24.2%), but he also played as a deep safety (10.8%), along the defensive line (8.1%) and split out wide (7.3%). Additionally, he saw action on all five special teams units while being on the field a combined 129 of 464 snaps (27.8%); Dugger registered eight tackles in the game’s third phase.
All in all, the 2021 season was mostly a successful individual campaign for the Patriots’ former second-round investment. Dugger continued to grow his role within the defense, and made some big plays for the unit; he ranked second on the team in combined takeaways (5) and first in interception return yardage (100). While not all went entirely according to plan — his injuries continued to be a concerned and limited him in the playoff loss in Buffalo, for example — he can feel good about Year 2 in the NFL.
What is his projected role? Dugger’s progression over the course of his 2020 rookie season showed how the Patriots viewed him and his potential contributions to their defense; he started out as a rotational player and by the end of the year was a starter. He kept that role throughout his sophomore campaign and should therefore be expected to not see any changes in Year 3. Dugger is a starter-level defensive back alongside fellow safeties Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips, and capable of playing multiple roles.
Does he have positional versatility? The Patriots already used Dugger all over the formation as a rookie, and he continued to serve as a Swiss Army Knife-type player for them in 2021. As illustrated above, he saw most of his action either as a “star” defender — a box safety/off-the-ball linebacker hybrid — or in the slot. Additionally, he aligned as a deep safety, on the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker, and even split out wide as a perimeter cornerback. Nothing is expected to change heading into 2022.
What is his special teams value? With his defensive role continuing to grow, Dugger’s special teams contributions changed a bit. He served as a four-unit special teamer in 2020, seeing regular action on both coverage and return squads, but was employed predominately on kickoff coverage last season (51.9%). He did see the occasional snap on the punt coverage (13.2%), punt return (6.2%) and kickoff return (3.1%) teams as well as the field goal/extra point blocking unit (25.6%), but it appears New England might be willing to limit his exposure in the game’s third phase.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the third season of the rookie contract he signed with the Patriots in 2020, Dugger is carrying a $2.27 million salary cap hit into the season — a comparatively low number for a player of his potential contributions to the team’s defense. The deal’s structure is pretty straight-forward: Dugger will play on a partially-guaranteed $1.37 million salary as well as a fully-guaranteed $904,891 signing bonus proration; $341,862 of his salary are guaranteed.
How safe is his roster spot? His team-friendly contract, the promise he repeatedly showed throughout his first two years in the Patriots system, and his projected role in 2022 all paint a pretty clear picture: Dugger is a lock to make New England’s 53-man roster, and not just that. The 26-year-old will once again serve as a starter-level player on defense; Dugger being on the field for roughly three fourths of defensive snaps each week plus some on special teams as well would not be a surprise.
One-sentence projection: There are some questions about his durability, but a healthy Dugger will play a big role in New England’s defense in 2022 and rarely leave the field.