The 2021 New England Patriots may not have assembled a roster of superstar players, but they have a solid team from top to bottom — one that currently owns a 7-4 record and one of the top playoff seeds in the AFC. In order to get there, especially after a 2-4 start, the big names on the roster all had to perform at a high level.
It it not just them, though: some under-the-radar contributors have also emerged and played a key role in New England emerging as one of the hottest teams in the game right now.
Two of those under-the-radar players have now been honored by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell; they are included in his NFL All-Underrated Team.
Wide receiver: Kendrick Bourne, Patriots
The Patriots’ free-agent shopping spree at receiver has yielded a mixed bag of results. Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith haven’t been impressive given their salaries, but Hunter Henry has been a red zone threat and Bourne has been an extremely effective second receiver option behind Jakobi Meyers. You’ve probably seen plenty of Bourne’s two highlight-reel plays, given that they featured him splitting between Damontae Kazee and Trevon Diggs for a 75-yard touchdown and a spectacular leaping catch for a score against the Browns.
Those plays aren’t necessarily typical of his week-to-week role in the offense, but the former 49ers wideout has caught more than 78% of his targets this season. NFL Next Gen Stats has his expected catch rate at 67.4%, meaning he’s operating at nearly 11% above expectation. That’s the third-best mark in the league, behind only those of Christian Kirk and [Tim] Patrick.
Some of the hype surrounding the Patriots’ offense is overstated, given that they rank 16th in offensive and passing DVOA, but Bourne has outplayed his three-year, $15 million deal.
Bourne has been a find for the Patriots this season, and has quickly developed into one of quarterback Mac Jones’ favorite targets. As a result, the 26-year-old leads the team in receiving yards with 562. Furthermore, three of his 37 catches have resulted in touchdowns, while he has also carried the football six times for 78 yards.
Long story short, Bourne has been a valuable member of the New England offense this season — and a worthy inclusion on the All-Underrated Team.
The same goes for...
Cornerback/Safety: Kyle Dugger, Patriots
One more defensive back from the 2020 draft? Sure. Dugger is nominally a safety on paper, but he plays both safety spots and also chips in a fair amount of the time as a slot corner. When NFL Next Gen Stats identifies him as a slot defender, he has allowed a passer rating of just 35.2 and generated 13.2 EPA for the Patriots’ defense, the latter of which ranks fourth in the NFL.
Bill Belichick finds a variety of roles for the defender with tremendous measurables, but alongside fellow All-Underrated Team candidate Adrian Phillips, Dugger might be best at shutting down opposing tight ends. He was among the defenders who helped slow down Falcons star Kyle Pitts in last week’s shutout win over Atlanta.
A Round 2 selection in last year’s draft, Dugger’s second-year jump has been nothing short of impressive. The Lenoir-Rhyne product is now a starter-level defender in the New England secondary, capable of filling multiple spots at a very high level.
So far this season, Dugger has played 81 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps and leads the team with 71 tackles. He also has intercepted three passes, while helping the Patriots field the NFL’s best defense against tight ends when measured by DVOA (-52.3%).