What lesson did the Patriots take away from their second-round, secondary swings and misses in the draft recently?
Somehow, against all odds, they decided they weren’t taking big enough risks.
So with their first selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, they didn’t take a guy from Alabama, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Florida, Virginia or Colorado as they did when they took Cyrus Jones, Joejuan Williams, Jordan Richards, Duke Dawson, Ras-I Dowling and Terrence Wheatley in Round 2.
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Instead, they went down to Division II to find their drought-buster. Lenoir-Rhyne University, to be exact.
There, they found a freakishly athletic 24-year-old who's built like a safe and can jump out of the gym (6-1, 217 pounds, 42-inch vertical, 78.5-inch wingspan) named Kyle Dugger.
Did Dugger stand out against the likes of Newberry, Mars Hill and Tusculum for the last half-decade he’s been in college (he took two redshirt seasons at the North Carolina college)? He sure did. He looked like a high school kid out at elementary school recess.
Does that, plus the measurables and the impressive cut of Dugger’s jib in interviews make up for the fact that he’s been standing out against the likes of Newberry, Mars Hill and Tusculum? We’ll see.
It certainly didn’t help any of the aforementioned busts (Williams is an “incomplete”) that they were playing in the SEC or wherever before they got to Foxboro. So playing D-II isn’t disqualifying. We've just been told often over the years that performances against high-end competition matter. Dugger doesn't have that aside from a week at the Senior Bowl.
So it was just a jarring dice roll by Belichick given the persistence with which the Patriots have attacked the secondary in the second round and gotten very little return there.
I asked Belichick about that a couple weeks back and he wasn’t psyched about the inference.
As the evening wore on, I warmed up to the Dugger pick. As former Patriots executive Scott Pioli said on the Patriots Talk Podcast, the Patriots are tireless workers. Their hay was in the barn long before this pandemic shut down the chance to do further evaluations. Maybe this was the time to take a risk on someone other teams felt they hadn’t gotten a chance to know well.
There were plenty of big brain national draftniks who saw Dugger as a riser in the process so it’s not like the Patriots were out on some island taking the kid for poops and giggles.
They need safety depth that’s versatile and Dugger should bring that since he can play free and strong safety and even dabble at the linebacker level. To me, safety was near the top of their needs list. Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty — capable as they may be at 32 — need depth behind them, especially with Duron Harmon now in Detroit.
Dugger isn’t a “name” like Alabama’s Xavier McKinney, LSU’s Grant Delpit or Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield. Still, Patriots personnel man Nick Caserio said on last night’s conference call that he was one of three players the Patriots went into the night hoping to get so McKinney (who went to the Giants at 36) and the other two weren’t the fits that Dugger was.
The other name Caserio revealed was Josh Uche, an edge defender from Michigan they traded up to select at 60. They followed up Uche with another big-program edge defender in Alabama's Anfernee Jennings.
For a team that lost Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Trey Flowers over the past two years of free agency, saw Rob Ninkovich retire in 2017 and hasn’t gotten anything yet from the talented but injury-plagued Derek Rivers (third round, 2016), the team needs a reload. Those two along with last year’s selection of Chase Winovich mean the team has good, young, tough, high-motor talent at that spot.
Edge was a “must-have” position in this draft. So was tight end, which the Patriots finally addressed with a pair of third-round picks: Devin Asiasi from UCLA and Dalton Keene from Virginia Tech.
Since 2010, the only draft picks the Patriots used at that position were late and not great: Lee Smith, A.J. Derby and Ryan Izzo. They paid the price for ignoring it last season when the ineptitude at the position hurt them in both the running and passing game.
It’s impossible to predict how Asiasi and Keene might turn out. It’s traditionally one of the hardest positions in the Patriots offense because of the volume of responsibilities to master. But in Asiasi they have a fluid route runner who’s good after the catch and can block.
Keene may take some work, but he’s got three traits the Patriots love: versatility, toughness and competitiveness. He was used all over the place by the Hokies including as a ball-carrier out of the backfield. So between the two of them, a lot of bases can potentially be covered.
And that’s going to be great news to Jarrett Stidham, Brian Hoyer or whoever ends up playing quarterback for the Patriots in 2020.
That position is still the most important spot in the sport and the Patriots may have inclinations about what they will wind up doing when the games begin but they have no certainty. Except that they will add another. Caserio said there are still quarterbacks on the board who appeal to them and that the team is going to bring somebody in.
That means either Washington’s Jacob Eason, who fits the dropback passer suit but is desperately immobile; Georgia’s Jake Fromm, who has less-than-ideal arm strength but is a polished, experienced field general or one of a few other players who — truth be told — probably aren’t going to be better than Stidham.
If you want to look at the glass as half-full on this Saturday morning, the Patriots got five players Friday night who fit neatly into definite needs. There are very high ceilings for three of them — Dugger, Uche and Asiasi.
If they hit those and a few of the redshirts from last year like Damien Harris, Hjalte Froholdt, Yodny Cajuste and Joejuan Williams turn into something, we may turn around in a year or two and say that the 2019 and 2020 drafts were a lot better than they looked at first blush.