Patriots

Kyle Dugger readying for full-time starting role at safety for Patriots

With Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips set to become free agents next year, Kyle Dugger is asserting himself as the Patriots' top safety of the future.

Kyle Dugger Patriots
New England Patriots Kyle Dugger returns an interception 37 yards against the Cleveland Browns. Matthew J Lee/Globe staff
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For Patriots defenders, it’s the little things fans might not catch at first glance that remind them of how talented Kyle Dugger is.

Veteran safeties Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips each told stories after New England’s rout of the Browns last Sunday about how Dugger regularly astonishes them with the way he knocks back the heads of offensive linemen that try to block him in the run game.

“I ask him every week how he ended up as a D-II player because he’s a physical freak,” McCourty remarked.

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower added offensive coaches rarely task receivers with blocking the uber-explosive safety, who turned heads with a monster performance at the 2020 NFL Combine.

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“They call him ‘King Dugg’ for a reason,” Hightower said. “It’s kind of hard to put tabs on players like that.”

But everyone knew how much of a force Dugger was as a downhill defender during his rookie season, which saw him bowel over blockers and stop ball carriers in their tracks. The key to this season was whether the former Division-II safety could take his coverage game to the next level.

His outstanding physical traits combined with his growing comfort in the Patriots’ system are starting to yield big plays for New England’s defense.

Dugger’s second-quarter interception of Baker Mayfield last Sunday against the Browns was an example of just that. The 25-year-old defensive back read Mayfield’s eyes as a deep safety in Cover 2, swooped in and undercut the pass intended for Donovan Peoples-Jones, almost taking it back to the house.

He’s been showing off the most important trait of being a ball-hawking defender: being in the right place at the right time. That’s led to three interceptions for Dugger, tying him with Adrian Phillips for second on the team.

The medley of instincts, good fortune and pure skill needed to make those kinds of game-changing plays have earned Dugger significant trust in his second season with the Patriots.

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The 2020 second-round pick has been listed as a starter in eight of the Patriots’ first 10 games this season and has played 81.3 percent of defensive snaps on the season, behind Devin McCourty (91 percent) and the slightest tick ahead of Adrian Phillips (81 percent).

That includes packages that have Dugger as one of two safeties on the field, spelling McCourty or Phillips, or as part of “big nickel” packages with all three safeties on the field.

Though Dugger spends most of his time in the box as an extra linebacker or strong safety, which is likely the position he’s best suited to, he also has shown the range and instincts to play as a deep safety with the football in front of him.

What’s more, his man coverage has ostensibly improved over last season, when he was a regular target if matched up against pass-catching tight ends. His Pro Football Focus grade in man coverage has risen from a dismal 47.9 in 2020 to a more respectable 66.5 this season.

Former Patriots’ safety Rodney Harrison says he sees Dugger “getting better” in that aspect of his game but added man coverage on tight ends will be the biggest step in his evolution into a complete player.

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“I’m still gonna get [to work with] him this offseason,” the ex-Pro Bowler said. “I’m still gonna work with him on covering tight ends. I still think he can really elevate his game…but I’ve been impressed with Kyle. Kyle’s a humble kid. He wants to do things right. He works hard. He could be one of the top safeties in this league.”

Dugger could get his chance to prove it soon with potential change on the horizon for the Patriots.

McCourty and Phillips are both set to hit free agency after the 2021 season, with McCourty set to turn 35 years old before the start of next season. If the elder statesman of the Patriots’ defense either leaves or retires and Phillips prices himself out of New England, Dugger might just be the top dog in the room when 2022 rolls around.

But regardless of who is in that safety room with him going forward, Dugger is primed to become one of the marquee players of the Patriots’ defense for a few years.

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