Might Kyle Dugger emerge as the Patriots' best defensive player with increased role in 2022?
With all the talk about who's calling the offensive plays and what Mac Jones and his supporting cast will look like, plenty of attention is being diverted from how a Patriots defense unit that was ravaged by opponents at the end of the 2021 season will fare this coming season.
In particular, how will the unit contain the dynamic offenses in the AFC East with a linebacking corps and a cornerback room lacking in star power and elite traits on paper?
Fortunately, outside experts believe the Patriots have one superstar in the making to offset some of those questions: Kyle Dugger.
First, The Athletic put the third-year safety on a list of potential breakout stars among second and third-year pros who could become top players at their positions on Tuesday.
"The Patriots utilized Dugger as a deep defensive back, in the slot, in man coverage against tight ends, as a blitzer and even as a middle-of-the-field zone defender in Tampa 2," wrote Nate Tice of The Athletic. "His ability to hang with athletic tight ends in coverage helped the Patriots defense finish first in defensive DVOA against tight ends in 2021, according to Football Outsiders.
"In a league that appreciates versatility from its players more than ever, Dugger is the prototype. He can hang with receivers in the slot, and his size makes him an effective tackler when bringing down receivers after the catch and when stopping the run, as evidenced by his five TFLs last season.
Then, in an interesting coincidence, NFL Network's Mike Giardi tweeted out a question he posed to several AFC executives that same day about which bargain-priced Patriots player they could take on their respective teams.
Three out of the four executives picked Dugger.
"He's mean," one executive said. "He could have played in any era."
The best part about Dugger's 2021 season were his improvements in coverage. As a zone defender, Dugger proved dangerous as a rover in the deep middle and intermediate areas of the field, showing off his instincts to read quarterbacks' eyes and jump routes as well as demonstrating good hands with the football in the air. The third-year safety out of Lenoir-Rhyne allowed a paltry 53.9 passer rating in zone coverage, good for 10th-best in the NFL last year at his position.
He was particularly impressive working out of the slot, where he allowed a miniscule 0.75 yards per coverage snap.
Though Dugger still has work to do as a man-coverage defensive back, he did register an impressive pass break-up on Atlanta mismatch nightmare Kyle Pitts last season that showed a glimpse of what he can do.
His increasing coverage acumen will be especially important to a defense that might rely on zone coverage and its multidimensional safeties more this season than in previous years.
Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Devin McCourty might have to play even more than normal against explosive offenses to limit how much their linebackers end up exposed in pass coverage. If teams go away from heavy personnel groups on offense, that could play into the Patriots' hands as far as using more three and four-safety groups and blanketing more the field with diverse coverages. (Not that Dugger ever has a problem taking on blockers, of course.)
Playing more zone coverage might not only spare the Patriots' uncertain cornerback room the challenge of running with the likes of Tyreek Hill or Stefon Diggs down the field but also maximize Dugger's playmaking ability and ability to truly be everywhere.
Don't be surprised if we're talking about Dugger being the team's best defensive player, if not one of the team's best players entirely, by the end of next season.