Lazar: How Recent Moves to Replace Patrick Chung Led Kyle Dugger to Rodney Harrison

The second-year safety told reporters this week that he's watching tape of former Patriots legend Rodney Harrison this offseason.

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One of Bill Belichick’s sneaky offseason priorities of late was seeking replacements for recently retired safety Patrick Chung.

In his final six seasons in New England, Chung played a vital role in the Patriots’ defense as a hybrid safety whose primary responsibility was covering tight ends in the passing game. Most tight ends play either in-line or out of the slot, putting the 215-pound Chung in the box, which often gave him a primary run-stopping assignment as well.

Guarding the Travis Kelce’s of the NFL these days is difficult enough, but Chung’s physicality and tackling ability allowed him to hold up at essentially linebacker alignments.

Although he wasn’t very flashy, Chung brought a unique skill set and was a fiery competitor that Belichick often credited for being one of the best-conditioned players on the team.

Rumors began to surface following the 2019 season that Chung was contemplating retirement. He opted out in 2020, and his retirement will hit the transaction wire after June 1 for salary cap purposes.

Knowing Chung’s days were numbered, Belichick drafted super-athlete Kyle Dugger with his top pick in 2020, signed veteran Adrian Phillips, drafted a late-round box safety in Missouri’s Joshuah Bledsoe in 2021, and signed free-agent DB Jalen Mills to a four-year deal this offseason.

Safety Hybrids (Tight End Stoppers)

  1. Jalen Mills
  2. Kyle Dugger
  3. Adrian Phillips
  4. Joejuan Williams
  5. Myles Bryant
  6. Joshuah Bledsoe

In all, the Patriots now have six defensive backs on the roster potentially competing for snaps as either slot defenders or SS/box hybrids; what is the plan with all these guys?

Williams will get his best chance this summer to compete at outside corner, which from this perspective, is where he looks the most comfortable. Bryant and Bledsoe figure to compete for a roster spot to provide depth, and Phillips can also step into a linebacker-like role as he did a year ago while serving as a core contributor on special teams.

Then, there’s Jalen Mills. The Patriots inked Mills to a four-year, $24 million deal that likely guarantees him a roster spot for two seasons from a financial perspective. The 27-year-old struggled as an outside corner in Philadelphia, often overreacting to every double move or route fake thrown his way.

However, like Chung, Mills is a competitor that plays with all-out effort. The LSU product is also extremely versatile, logging snaps at all three levels of the Eagles’ defense, and started to look more comfortable playing in the middle of the field as a safety.

Mills still has a ways to go before he can lock down tight ends in man coverage. But he has man coverage upside, held his own as a run defender in the box, tallied a few pressures as a blitzer, and made some plays in deep zones.

There isn’t a standout trait with Mills, who lacks patience and the ability to play the football in the air to make a high impact in coverage and isn’t an enforcer coming downhill either.

Still, you know Belichick loves versatile defensive backs that can move around and has a role in mind for Mills that will keep inside and away from man coverage against wide receivers.

With Chung’s retirement, explaining the Mills signing as a chess piece that could take on some of Chung’s role while also potentially factoring in as an extra deep safety is easy enough.

And it also brings us to a very important piece for the 2021 defense and beyond: Kyle Dugger.

In his rookie season, the former DII star flashed true playmaker qualities both before and after an ankle injury that slowed down Dugger’s progress. Dugger is a physical specimen, an explosive mover and hitter with plenty of play strength to operate in the box.

As he transitioned from a free safety role in college, Dugger had some ups and downs running with tight ends in coverage but has the movement skills once he figures out the technique.

The fear is that Mills and Dugger could overlap, taking away valuable reps for one of the most promising young defenders on the team who, again, has blue-chip potential.

Tight-end stoppers are critical in today’s game, but if Mills or one of the others listed above can fill that void, it unlocks a new dimension for Dugger that harkens back to a different Pats legend.

Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Dugger mentioned that his offseason film assignment wasn’t to watch Chung but rather go back to the early 2000s to look at Rodney Harrison and Steelers Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu.

Both Harrison and Polamalu were old-school strong safety who thrived on physicality and instincts, two things that Dugger often displays when he’s free to roam in the secondary.

“Just the trust in their football instincts,” Dugger said of Harrison and Polamalu’s standout traits. “Some stuff they do, you either have it just by trusting and playing the game — trusting in yourself — or you don’t. Some of the plays they make are really just the trust they had in themselves and what they saw, what their eyes told them, and going and making a play.”

Forcing Dugger into man coverage against tight ends means he has one man, one responsibility, and often runs with his back to the football.

Unless he sees a high volume of targets, pigeonholing him to those man coverage assignments will take him away from the ball the vast majority of the time.

Instead, Belichick could turn Dugger into more of Harrison than a Chung, allowing him to patrol the middle of the field to fly to the ball, relying on his feel for the game and athleticism. In that role, Dugger can have a higher impact.

Harrison is the only defensive back in NFL history with 30 sacks and 30 interceptions in his career. He also forced 15 fumbles and had 40 career tackles for loss; you don’t accumulate those stats by chasing around tight ends. You do it by hunting the football.

Dugger certainly has a long way to go before he’s on Rodney Harrison’s level, but based on what we’ve seen so far, the football instincts and explosiveness are there.

There will certainly be aspects of Dugger’s game that will resemble Chung’s as we move forward. He’ll take tight ends in coverage at times, and again, there’s value in that role.

However, the potential is there for more as a middle-of-the-field enforcer that can attack the line of scrimmage and ballhawk in zone coverage.

The Patriots now have the depth around Dugger with Mills in the mix to free up the 2020 second-round pick to make a Harrison-like impact.