The New England Patriots defense has reached the end of another life cycle. After being led by the likes of Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower for most of the past decade, the keys will soon be handed over to a new generation of players.
McCourty, after all, is in the final year of his contract and will turn 35 in August. Hightower, meanwhile, remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent.
Who will step into their shoes remains to be seen, but it appears Kyle Dugger is one prime candidate to take on a more prominent leadership role in 2022 and beyond. McCourty, after all, sees him as a future leader of the Patriots defense and team as a whole.
Speaking to reporters last Thursday, the long-time team captain praised the third-year defender for his work ethic while offering an encouraging longer-term outlook.
“I love Dug,” McCourty said about the 26-year-old. “The way he’s able to not care about what people are saying about him, what he’s done in the past — being a D-II player — he doesn’t care about any of that. Dug shows up, can do everything, can play in the deep part of the field, can cover; obviously, if you watched any of our games, you know he can knock your head off. I just love watching him grow. I think sky’s the limit for him.”
The Patriots added Dugger in the second round of the 2020 draft and he has since developed into a hyper-versatile starter within New England’s secondary. Moving all over the formation, he appeared in 30 total games over his first two seasons in the NFL, registering four interceptions as well as a fumble recovery.
The numbers only tell part of the story, though. According to McCourty, Dugger also has become a tone-setter of sorts for the rest of the team — carrying himself differently than a lot of other players of his age and experience.
“He works so hard and he has that mentality that young players don’t always have nowadays: he doesn’t really care where you rank him and all that, he just wants to win,” McCourty said.
“He wants to do the right things on the field, and I think that’s the recipe not only to be a good player — especially in this system to be one of the better safeties — but also to be the leader of this team and of the defense going forward. Watching him develop and doing those things has been fun and I can’t wait to see how he continues to develop in the future.”
As opposed to McCourty, Dugger remains under contract beyond this season. He is not scheduled to enter free agency until March 2024, at which point his veteran teammate might already be retired.
Together with recently extended Adrian Phillips, Dugger therefore projects to be a cornerstone upon which New England will build its defense for the foreseeable future. McCourty’s statements only reaffirm that belief.