It’s no secret Bill Belichick’s stock took a sizable hit after the 2020 season. After all, he let Tom Brady walk out the door, foolishly hitched his wagon to Cam Newton, and posted a losing record for the first time since he took over as head coach of the New England Patriots.
Needless to say, his resume didn’t look quite as strong following a dismal campaign that raised legitimate questions about the direction of Robert Kraft’s franchise.
Of course, Belichick has faced plenty of criticism in recent years for his struggles in the draft. In fact, even his boss referenced the team’s lack of young, homegrown players this offseason, which understandably raised a few eyebrows around Foxborough.
Luckily for the man with an $18 million salary and an impressive collection of Super Bowl rings, a well-timed development has drastically altered his resume for good. And not only has that helped Belichick on an individual level, but it’s also helped from a team perspective, too.
After all, it’s impossible to look at what the Patriots have done defensively over the last month or so and not come away impressed by the results. Thanks to pitching a shutout against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday Night Football, they rank second in points allowed at a mere 16.1 per game. The continued excellence of star outside linebacker Matt Judon has certainly helped. So too has the emergence of rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore. Plus, Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Ja’Whaun Bentley have stepped up, too.
But the spotlight should go on a second-year player who’s shown exactly why Belichick spent a second-round pick to secure his services: Kyle Dugger.
As much credit as Judon and Barmore deserve for applying pressure on quarterbacks and making life miserable for offensive linemen, Dugger’s development warrants attention. Tipping the scales at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, the physically gifted safety has suddenly become one of the most dangerous defenders on the team. Considering he went to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne and didn’t face anything close to NFL-caliber competition, the 25-year-old’s rise is even more impressive.
Not only does Dugger lead the team with 70 total tackles, but he’s also provided the Patriots with a much-needed playmaking presence in the secondary. After failing to record a single interception or pass breakup as a rookie, the talented defensive back has totaled three interceptions and four passes defended in 11 games. Plus, Dugger has registered four tackles for loss and one quarterback hit.
Against the Falcons, Belichick used the strong, explosive safety to shut down No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts. Dugger showed fantastic technique by breaking up a first-quarter pass intended for the uber-talented tight end, and he limited Pitts to just 29 yards on three receptions.
At this point, it’s fair to say the Patriots have another homegrown star on their hands. Besides showcasing the ability to make plays on the ball, Dugger has also displayed a knack for delivering bone-crunching tackles. As the game has slowed down for him, he’s been able to utilize his prodigious physical tools to make a sizable impact in all areas of the game, including on special teams.
Thankfully for the Patriots’ defense, they now have three top-flight safeties with differing skill sets. Devin McCourty excels as a centerfielder who can patrol the back end. Adrian Phillips stands out against the run and has the awareness and experience to make quarterbacks pay. Meanwhile, Dugger continues to show up as a violent tackler and much-improved one-on-one coverage defender who can do it all.
As for Belichick, it’s about time he hit on an early-round defensive back. He has a stunningly unimpressive track record of selecting safeties and corners with high picks. Just look at some of the results in recent years:
- Jordan Richards (2015 second round, 64th overall): Former Stanford safety started just seven games and got exposed by Nick Foles in Super Bowl 52.
- Cyrus Jones (2016 second round, 60th overall): Ex-Alabama standout started one game as a rookie, suffered a torn ACL in the 2017 preseason, and then got waived in October 2018.
- Duke Dawson (2018 second round, 56th overall): Belichick traded up for the Florida product, who went on to appear in zero games for the Patriots before getting traded to the Denver Broncos in a late-round pick swap.
- Joejuan Williams (2019 second round, 45th overall): Another move up the board for a player who has yet to become a full-time starter in New England.
Not exactly a good look for Belichick the general manager, right?
Luckily, though, it seems like the NFL legend has finally turned the corner. Dugger has announced his arrival as a high-level starter, and he still has room to grow. Meanwhile, fellow 2020 draft pick Michael Onwenu looks like a long-term fixture along the offensive line. And it’s obvious Belichick knocked it out of the park with a 2021 class headlined by Jones, Barmore, and Rhamondre Stevenson.
Right now, his resume looks much better than it did even a month ago. Belichick can officially add Dugger to his list of draft hits — one that includes cornerstone players like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, and Matthew Slater.
More importantly, the Patriots added a dynamic player to their defense by taking a chance on a D-II safety from a school nobody heard of before the 2020 draft.
As they say, good things come to those who wait. And while it took a little patience and plenty of practice reps, it’s clear Kyle Dugger has taken the next step in his development.
If that’s a sign of things to come, the rest of the NFL better prepare for at least a few more years of Bill Belichick’s brilliance.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.