FOXBORO, MA — Patriots safety Kyle Dugger’s physicality at the point of attack won over almost everyone during a successful rookie season a year ago.
However, the one weakness in Dugger’s game was an evolving role as a man coverage defender on tight ends. Like the safety who donned the number 23 before him, Dugger is transitioning from deep safety in college to a role in the box.
“He asked me for the number, and I said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I told him to take it over. And I pray to God that he’s way better than I am because that’s only going to help us as Patriots,” former Patriots safety Patrick Chung told NESN.com over the summer.
According to Pro Football Focus, the second-year safety allowed a completion rate of 73.7 and a 93.4 passer rating into his coverage last season. Not awful, but there’s room for improvement.
Dugger was the primary defender on three separate occasions in the Patriots’ preseason opener against the Washington Football Team, and the results were once again mixed.
On a positive note, though, there were noticeable improvements to Dugger’s technique as well.
Starting with the positives, here is a perfect rep of man coverage by Dugger where he plays with proper leverage and uses his help to the middle of the field. Knowing that free safety Myles Bryant is providing inside help over the top, Dugger stays on the outside hip of WFT tight end Temarrick Hemingway to take away anything down the sideline. Hemingway breaks upfield on a corner route, and Dugger is in a perfect position to contest the pass, as is Bryant.
Here, Dugger finds himself in a potential mismatch with Washington’s top receiver, Terry McLaurin. Although McLaurin has the advantage on paper, the Pats’ safety makes a nice play in zone coverage this time. Dugger reads the route and shows impressive closing burst to tackle McLaurin from his short zone before the speedy WFT receiver can turn upfield to pick up yards after the catch.
Dugger’s improvements in coverage revealed themselves on the practice field, but there are still times when he falls behind when he is out-leveraged early in the route.
For example, Washington tight end Logan Thomas caught a 24-yard pass on Dugger early in Thursday night’s game. Due to Thomas’s condensed split as a detached receiver from the formation, Dugger plays Thomas with inside leverage, aiming his outside foot at Thomas’s inside hip. That leaves open space for Thomas along the sideline, and Washington quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick throws Thomas open on a back-shoulder fade.
On the one hand, Thomas ran a challenging route to defend with Dugger’s body positioning on the play. Still, Dugger’s route recognition and closing speed need to save him there.
After ten seasons with the Patriots, Chung announced his retirement in March, but his absence from the defense began when he opted out due to the pandemic in 2020.
The Patriots now need a long-term replacement for Chung, who was primarily responsible for defending tight ends on the opposing offense every week.
Dugger’s selection at the top of the second round in the 2020 draft was the Patriots foreshadowing Chung’s departure from the defense as they knew they’d need a replacement.
Although there are flashes of improvements from Dugger, he has big shoes to fill and will not have it easy with all the productive pass-catching tight ends in today’s NFL.