It could be forgiven if Kyle Dugger needed a few weeks to get acclimated to NFL football. After all, coming from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University, located in Hickory, North Carolina, Dugger faced a steep challenge in making the transition to the NFL, no matter what you thought of his talent level coming out of college.
But after seeing Dugger’s performance in just his second NFL game, on Sunday Night Football against the Seattle Seahawks, it might be time to start reconsidering just how much of an impact New England’s second-round pick can make this year, and perhaps raising expectations for the rookie safety.
After playing 11 defensive snaps in Week 1 against the Dolphins, Dugger’s number was called a lot more in Week 2, playing 34 defensive snaps total. Along with his increased playing time, Dugger’s production also shot up, as the rookie safety logged six tackles and a half sack.
Against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Russell Wilson, Dugger showed that he belonged on the field, and can be a player that the New England defense can rely on moving forward.
Big play ability
Dugger combined with Chase Winovich on a sack of Wilson in the first half, but it was how he was able to get to Wilson that was the highlight of the play. Dugger blitzed from the second level, playing box safety, and tossed Seattle’s 327-pound right guard Damien Lewis like a rag doll, right onto his backside.
Seeing a 220-pound player bulldoze an NFL offensive lineman that has 100-plus pounds on him isn’t something you see every day in the NFL. But a player with Dugger’s athleticism and versatility isn’t something you see every day in the NFL, either.
Plays like that, along with others against Seattle in Week 2, show a versatile safety who has the physicality to play down in the box, as well as the range to play as a split safety.
What his teammates and coaches are saying
Ask around about Dugger to his teammates and coaches though, and Dugger’s fast start to his rookie season is no surprise.
When asked about his thoughts on how Dugger handled his increased workload against Seattle, Bill Belichick gave a positive review of the 6-foot-2 safety.
“Yeah, I think Kyle did a good job,” said Belichick. “He learns a lot every day, both in practice and in the games. He had a larger number of snaps last night in the kicking game [against Seattle] and on defense and did a lot of good things. There’s still obviously things that he’s learning about and will learn from and will improve the next time, but I think he’s tracking well.”
Dugger’s peers in the secondary have had some glowing things to say about him in recent weeks too.
Devin McCourty, appearing on The Greg Hill Show on Friday, said, “He’s a freak athlete…He does stuff in practice so far, I think at different times, where we’re like, ‘Damn, did you see that?’”
McCourty’s twin brother, Jason, added on to his sibling’s praise for Dugger on Tuesday, saying that the “sky’s the limit” for the first-year safety.
Perhaps the most effusive praise for Dugger came from Adrian Phillips, a player who has already shared the field with one of the elite young talents at the safety position in Derwin James, when Phillips was with the Los Angeles Chargers.
“The first thing that I noticed was he’s smart, so we didn’t get a chance to meet in person for a long time because we did everything virtually,” said Phillips. “But going through the meetings, this is a guy that can pick up on the scheme real quick. I would say this isn’t the easiest scheme to pick up. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but once you get it, you got it. And the way that he just picked it up and he’s able to talk ball, seeing that in a rookie, you really don’t see that a lot of times. The only other time that I’ve really seen that was with Derwin James.”
James, of course, was selected to the Pro Bowl and named First-Team All-Pro as a rookie after being drafted 17th overall by the Chargers out of Florida State.
What makes Dugger’s early-season performance perhaps even more impressive than how James’s career started was the manner in which Dugger entered the NFL, having to start his career as a Patriot completely online due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Dugger was behind the eight-ball from the start, but you wouldn’t know that with the poise he showed and the impact he made on Sunday night.
“He’s learned well with how we want him to,” said Patriots safeties coach Brian Belichick. “He’s learning the concepts of the defense, not just his particular role. He’s progressing and every day he’s trying to improve. That’s what we want as a coach. It’s great to work with him.”
With Patrick Chung opting out of the season due to COVID-19, and the Patriots’ depth at linebacker figuring to be an issue all season, Dugger’s role should only grow as the season progresses. But don’t expect the kid from Division II to be fazed at how much is being thrown at him. For Dugger, this is only the beginning of what he can become for this defense.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of differences between the level of play in Division II and the NFL but, at the end of the day, it’s all football,” said Dugger. “And so, I kind of just look at it more so as a thing of, I don’t really look at who I’m playing with, I just kind of look at the game I’m playing and how I can benefit the team and help out no matter who I’m really lining up against.”
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