Kyle Dugger will be a big factor for Patriots’ success in 2022

Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) on the sideline during the second half of a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) on the sideline during the second half of a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports /

When the Patriots selected a Division-II defensive back out of Lenoir-Rhyne University in the 2020 draft, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding their pick. But in just two seasons of playing in the NFL, Kyle Dugger has proven to be one of the best picks Bill Belichick has made in several years.

With so much emphasis on the state of the Patriots and the hype over the evolving defense, there has been a lot of debate regarding which player will be the best of them all. Within that discussion, several players appear to be flying under the radar in reference to their production for this upcoming season.

Although he has become a recent favorite amongst the media, Dugger has demonstrated that he deserves to be discussed as one of the best defensive players in New England.

Developing a D-II player? No problem!

There is so much stock put into players that come from big-name schools when selecting players to draft. But when it comes to Belichick, the same rules should not apply.

Kyle Dugger entered the league as a 24-year-old out of Lenoir-Rhyne, attending the school from 2014-2019. Throughout his college tenure, he would appear in 42 games and participate in several different positions on the field.

When playing in the secondary, he would total 237 tackles, 10 interceptions, and 36 passes defended. He would also tally six forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries.

His versatility would shine when given the opportunity to partake in special teams plays. Because of that, Dugger would become a return specialist and succeed at that as well. In his five seasons with the Bears, he returned 67 punts for 929 yards and six touchdowns. His performance as a returner broke school records, becoming the all-time leader in punt return yards in the university’s history.

College accomplishments

  • 2019: Winner of the Cliff Harris Award
    -Named First Team All-American
    -Named Second Team All-American honors by the AFCA and D2CCA
  • 2018: Named First Team All-South Atlantic Conference for both DB and return specialist
  • 2017: Named Second Team All-Conference
  • 2015: Named South Atlantic Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year.

Dugger’s impressive college career would earn him an invite to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. He would be the only D-II player invited to both events that year.

Despite all of his accolades, there was still a lot of doubt about how Dugger would perform in the big leagues. Coming from a D-II school that sees “less competition” than the big names, his transition to playing against much tougher opponents became a talking point after his selection.

But it was clear from the beginning that would not be an issue, especially for a coach known for being the best at what he does.

Looking over Belichick’s twenty-plus years as head coach in Foxboro, Dugger is not the first DII player he has taken interest in. The success stories of Danny Woodhead and Malcolm Butler’s careers in New England are not ones to ignore. Both were intricate parts of the team’s success during their years spent on the team, proving once again that Belichick can truly develop hidden gems into their biggest potential.

With the 2022 season just around the corner, it appears Dugger is on the path to becoming a more significant piece of the team than both former players combined.

How has Dugger performed throughout his first two seasons?

It would be fair to say that Dugger has outperformed most expectations placed on him since joining the Patriots in 2020. Regardless of his draft status as the 37th overall pick, there weren’t many believers in how his play would translate and develop in the NFL.

2020 season

As a rookie in 2020, Dugger would play in a total of 14 games, making an impact in just his first season. He would play several positions throughout the year, displaying his well-known versatility all over the football field.

Once he earned a spot as a full-time starter by week 9, he would play a major role in the success of the defense in several games. His biggest contributions came when he shut down one of the best tight ends in football, Raiders’ Darren Waller and when his helpful performance limited the number one offense in the league at the time, the Arizona Cardinals.

Career stats for 2020-2021 seasons

  • 29 games played – 20 started
  • 156 combined tackles, 6 tackles for a loss, and 8 special teams tackles
  • 5 passes defended and 2 QB hits
  • 4 interceptions returned for 100 yards (all in 2021)
  • 1 fumble recovery

2021 season

His sophomore season would begin as the last ended; Dugger would continue as a starting safety/defensive back for the Patriots moving forward. He would start in 13 of the 15 games he played in and would miss two games due to illness and injury.

Dugger would continue making impactful plays in nearly every game, playing a major role in the defense’s success with his aggressive and physical play style. There were a handful of games where he recorded a team-high number of tackles and he would finally get his hands on four total interceptions on the year, two of which were in back-to-back games.

The season would end better than the year prior, as the Patriots would earn a wildcard spot in the playoffs. Despite the eventual outcome, Dugger would remain a starter for the game and gain the experience of playing in the postseason.

What can the Patriots expect from Dugger in 2022?

As the Patriots’ offensive struggles continue to dominate the news cycle out of New England, the preseason performance from the defense in contrast has seemingly put many at ease. Their impressive showing was not expected but in the most positive of ways.

Because of the few improvements made to the defense this offseason, it was assumed the struggles of last year would once again appear in 2022. But with a plethora of young and physical players eager to make an impact, the defense quickly became the superior side of the ball.

Entering his third season in Foxboro this year, Dugger is poised to have the best season of his career. If his second-year jump is any indication of what’s to come, Belichick should be very pleased with his former second-round selection.

His production in only two seasons has caught the attention of seasoned veterans on the team, particularly Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips. As the two starting safeties on the team, Dugger took it upon himself to learn from the pair to help improve his game even more.

When speaking to the media in recent days, Phillips would mention his and McCourty’s mentoring of Dugger and what they’ve seen from him this preseason.

"For him, he asks questions with me and Dev and picks our brains on stuff. He’s been a guy who’s willing to learn. You can tell he cares about it. The fact that you see he cares about it is one of the main reasons you see the growth. It matters to him. It shows with his play on the field.”"

The impression he’s made in such a short amount of time shouldn’t be shocking, especially as Dugger continues to carry a chip on his shoulder from the chatter coming out of his drafting.

He too would speak to the media before heading to Miami and discuss how he spent his offseason. He would emphasize the amount of studying he did to improve on his craft, mentioning he couldn’t come up with a number when asked how many hours of film he’s watched.

"“I mainly focus on staying healthy and letting everything else take care of itself. I really try to focus on the discipline part of things — film study, being consistent with my stretches, putting in the work to keep my body healthy and just see what will happen if I do everything right like that.”"

With his performance and natural abilities trending him towards earning a leadership role within the defense, he would state that remaining focused and working with his teammates is what’s most important.

"“I think the biggest thing for me has been trusting the whole process. Making sure I’m keeping focused on what’s important as far as doing everything that I can to be the best version of myself for the defense. Trusting my teammates and kind of allowing them to push me in a way that I can work off of them — if that makes sense.”"

The Patriots will face many challenges during their 2022 season, especially as they deal with the growing pains of so many recent changes. But one thing is clear; Kyle Dugger has put in the work and will become a huge part of the team’s success defensively.