Kyle Dugger gears up for a full-time safe starting role for the Patriots

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Patriots

With Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips set to become free agents next year, Kyle Dugger is establishing himself as the Patriots’ best security of the future.

New England Patriots Kyle Dugger returns a 37-yard interception against the Cleveland Browns. Matthew J Lee / Globe staff

For Patriots defenders, it’s the little things fans might not catch at first glance that remind them of just how talented Kyle Dugger is.

Safety veterans Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips have each told stories after New England’s rout to the Browns last Sunday of how Dugger regularly amazes them with the way he tilts the heads of offensive linemen who are trying to block it in the racing 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 that offensive coaches rarely task receivers with blocking the ultra-explosive safety, which has turned heads with a monster performance at Combine NFL 2020.

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

But everyone knew how much of a downhill defender Dugger was during his rookie season, which saw him let off steam on blockers and stop running backs in their tracks. The key this season was whether the former Division II security could take their cover game to the next level.

His exceptional physical traits combined with his increasing comfort in the Patriots system are starting to produce big plays for the New England defense.

Dugger’s interception of Baker Mayfield last Sunday against the Browns was one example. The 25-year-old defensive back read Mayfield’s eye deep safety in Cover 2, dove and cut the pass intended for Donovan Peoples-Jones, almost bringing it home.

He has shown the most important trait of being a bullet peddler defender: being in the right place at the right time. This led to three interceptions for Dugger, tying him to Adrian Phillips for the team’s second place finish.

The mix of instincts, good fortune, and pure skill required to make these kinds of game-changing games has earned Dugger considerable confidence in his second season with the Patriots.

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

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

While Dugger spends most of his time in the box as an extra linebacker or strong safety, which is probably the position he is best suited to, he has also shown range and instinct to play like deep safety. with football in front of him.

In addition, his male coverage has conspicuously improved from last season, when he was a regular target if faced with tight ends catching passes. His Pro Football Focus rating on men’s cover has gone from a dismal 47.9 in 2020 to a more respectable 66.5 this season.

Former Patriots defenseman Rodney Harrison says he sees Dugger ‘improving’ in this aspect of his game, but adding male coverage on the tight ends will be the biggest step in his evolution into a player. full.

“I will always have [to work with] him this offseason, ”said the ex-Pro Bowler. “I will always work with him to cover the tight ends. I still think he can really raise his level of play… but I was impressed with Kyle. Kyle is a humble child. He wants to do it right. He works hard. He could be one of the best goalies in this league.

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

McCourty and Phillips are both set to enter free agency after the 2021 season, with McCourty expected to be 35 before the start of next season. If the oldest Patriots defense statesman leaves or retires and Phillips retires from New England, Dugger might just be the best dog in the room when 2022 arrives.

But it doesn’t matter who is in that safe room with him in the future, Dugger is set to be one of the top players in the Patriots’ defense for a few years.

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