What kind of player is Kyle Dugger. I checked the Senior Bowl tape to find out. Butch Dill/AP Photo
With the 37th overall pick, the Patriots rolled the dice on one of this year's most interesting prospects in safety Kyle Dugger. A late bloomer who wasn't even on the scouting radar as a 5'11", 170 pound high school senior, Dugger's scholarship offer to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne was the best of the three he received. By the end of a six year college career (he was medically red-shirted in two of his first three season's), he had transformed himself into a rocked up 217 pound freak who made his DII competition look like high schoolers. Don't take my word for it, take a look at this highlight reel. This is some Jadeveon Clowney in high school level stuff.
Tape like this was certainly enough to gain the attention of NFL scouts, who traversed to Hickory, North Carolina like never before to check out the weekly freak show. It was never going to be enough to project his ability to play against NFL talent, as his sheer athletic advantages allowed him to pretty much do whatever he wanted on the field. The true test for that would come at Senior Bowl, where Dugger would be matched up against NFL level DI prospects.
Dugger passed that test with flying colors. Some would expect him to struggle at first facing a significantly higher level of competition, but Dugger immediately looked like one of the best athletes and players on the field. His stock rose throughout the week of practices, as some eye popping reps in the one on one coverage drills particularly got scouts talking. He then put out excellent film in the game, showcasing the versatile skillset and athleticism that Bill Belichick deemed worthy of the 37th overall pick.
Like the NFL, I'm not going to try to glean anything from Dugger's college tape: any athlete of his caliber should be a dominant force against the competition he was facing. What I did do is go through his film from the Senior Bowl, including those 1v1 coverage reps, to get a better idea of what the Patriots got with this selection.
Let's start with his man coverage potential. Obviously, coverage ability is a must when drafting for the secondary, and it's even more vital for a New England scheme that requires high level man coverage options across the board to succeed. Patrick Chung's ability to man up on tight ends has been invaluable for the Patriots over the past half decade, but the team needs to be preparing for the inevitable day that the 32 year old Chung drops off and can no longer fill that role effectively.
With that in mind, the Patriots must have been drooling when watching Dugger in those Senior Bowl 1v1s. This is a drill that comically favors the offense, with even a contested catch generally being a good rep for the defender. With that in mind, Dugger allowing a 2-5 rate on his reps with two PBUs and an interception is absurdly good. Take a look at these reps:
Look at this smothering rep against Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney. Pinkney proved to be one of the drafts least athletic tight end options at the combine, so don't get too excited just yet. But the technique Dugger shows here is super promising, as he uses his length to stay in Pinkney's hip pocket before turning his head, locating the football and using his length and explosive leaping ability to contest at the catch point.
This rep showcases Dugger's freakish length, which makes him uniquely qualified to play this type of trail technique. He holds his outside leverage, forcing his opponent (Packers third round pick Josiah Deguara) to break inside. Once Deguara makes his cut, Dugger plants and explodes into chase mode, covering enough ground to catch up and swat the ball away at the catch point.
A lot of players, even those with the speed to catch up to this play, simply wouldn't have been able to reach Deguara's hands on that play. Dugger could because he has unusually long arms (32 7/8", 89th percentile). That length will come in handy as he finds himself matched up against significantly bigger tight ends in coverage, as he should be able to contest on jump balls that most safeties couldn't.
Here we see that come to fruition in an actual game setting against Saints draft pick Adam Trautman. Dugger holds his outside leverage and plays trail technique, running step for step with the big tight end. The quarterback tries the matchup anyways, liking the 255 pound Trautman's odds of boxing out the smaller Dugger at the catch point. Once again, Dugger uses his unusually long arms to rake the ball out of Trautman's hands, showing patience by waiting for the ball to arrive rather than risking a penalty.
Back in practice, we see Dugger display how his explosive ability to break on the ball can create turnovers. Once again, he is playing trail technique, this time against Vandy's Pinkney. He's athletic enough to undercut Pinkney's post route, timing his break on the ball perfectly to come away with a pick. Dugger's potential to generate turnovers is apparent, and his ability as an open field runner (six career punt return touchdowns) should make any interception of his a must see opportunity for a defensive score.
Even when Dugger didn't break up passes thrown his way, his natural reactive athleticism allowed him to stay sticky in man coverage. Harrison Bryant managed to hang on to this one despite Dugger being draped all over him, but it requires a perfect throw and a great focus catch to get that completion. This is still super impressive work in coverage.
While Dugger's upside in man will likely keep him largely in more of a Patrick Chung type role closer to the line of scrimmage, he also has the range to be effective patrolling the backend of the secondary. It would be surprising if he's asked to do much of that early on, as his instincts and mental processing will likely need a year or two of catching up as he adjusts to the leap from DII to the NFL. However, his range makes him the rare prospect with the ability to excel in both roles, which could be a major schematic advantage for Belichick to use in disguising coverages down the line.
The Senior Bowl gave the NFL a chance to evaluate Dugger in that deep safety role, as he played quite a few snaps back deep. He didn't really get tested downfield on any of those reps, but seemed to do a good job of staying disciplined and keeping everything in front of him.
This play stood out as one that displayed nice patience for a player who is supposedly raw from an Xs and Os point. Watch as Dugger stays home just long enough to take away the post from the slot, which is breaking open. He sits on that but keeps his eyes on the quarterback, who gets flushed out to his right by a free pass rusher. Dugger then bee-lines for the left sideline, matching the quarterback's movement, and covers a lot of ground quickly to get there. The play results in a completion because the corner stumbles out of his break, but Dugger has done his job, first by preventing the wide open post, then by getting in position to make sure he can make a touchdown saving tackle if the receiver breaks free. A good rep that would go unnoticed by the stat sheet or casual viewer.
Putting Dugger at free safety would lessen the amount of plays he can impact in the running game, but his speed and aggressive playing style would likely result in him getting in on far more plays than the average deep safety. Here we see him read run from a deep safety role and fly upfield to make the tackle.
Dugger's projection as a player who can play both safety roles is exciting, but we'd expect him to spend the bulk of his time working closer to the line of scrimmage. Simply put, his ability to chase and run down ball carriers should make the front seven significantly more active and athletic when he's on the field. In a league when offenses are testing defenses horizontally more than ever, Dugger has that hard-to-find ability to win those footraces to the sideline.
Perhaps no play showcased that specific value more than this one against Trautman in the Senior Bowl game. The well designed play creates natural traffic for Dugger from the inside receiver's route, forcing his brief hesitation. This gives Trautman a split-second advantage as he turns for the flat, and the quarterback hits him with the quick-hitter. Against many defenders the play might result in a touchdown. Not against Dugger, whose 97th percentile explosiveness allows him to catch up despite having to navigate around that natural "pick". Dugger than displays his physicality on the tackle, wrapping Trautman up with both arms before slinging him in the opposite direction of the end zone. The play design is supposed to create an opportunity for Trautman to break a tackle against a smaller player for a score, but Dugger slams the door shut on the scoring opportunity.
Dugger's activity level during his snaps lined up near the box was hard to miss. Time and time again he'd find himself around the play, using his speed to swarm to the ball carrier and displaying a willingness to lay the lumber once he got there. This is not a player that shies away from contact; not only does he fight like hell to get through blocks, but he'll put all of his 217 pounds into his tackle. Tackle is a key word there, as Dugger brings a hard-nosed edge to his attempts but also consistently shows good fundamental technique by using both arms to wrap up and wrestle the ball carrier down.
The ability to combine that level of activity in the box with his coverage upside was certainly what made Dugger so appealing to the Patriots. The examples above are exactly the type of plays in the box that Chung has made throughout his stalwart Patriots career. With an opportunity to learn behind Chung and strengthen the mental aspects of his game before hitting the field as a full time starter, the sky is the limit for this extremely talented player.
With Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray all taking the league by storm with their athleticism in the past three years, stocking up on athletes to play near the line of scrimmage has never been more important. The addition of Dugger gives the Patriots a unique athlete to plop into their box, giving them more athleticism than they've ever had as they try to counter the new wave of offensive speed entering the modern NFL.