This year's draft felt like one where the Patriots might skew "safe."
You know. Load up on multi-year starters. SEC guys. Captains. People who would draw rave reviews from Nick Saban or Kirby Smart. Given the unprecedented circumstances surrounding NFL offseason work, given the Patriots had to come up with a few hits in this year's rookie class, "safe" seemed like the way to go.
And they did go that way. With one pick.
Alabama's Anfernee Jennings, taken in the third round, met a few of those qualities listed above.
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Otherwise? This Patriots draft was about potential.
Four of the five players taken on Day 2 by Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio would qualify in many places as projections: Michigan's Josh Uche is an uber-athletic hybrid player who had to wait years before getting to the top of the depth chart in Ann Arbor; UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a promising tight end with only one year of starting experience; Virginia Tech's Dalton Keene is an all-purpose tight end who often filled a wing back role that doesn't really exist in the Patriots offense.
Then there was New England's first pick at No. 37 overall, upside personified, Kyle Dugger.
The 6-foot-1, 217-pound Division II safety likely had a section of Patriots fans scrambling to figure out what exactly was a "Lenoir-Rhyne" on the night he was drafted. Others may have thought back to former Patriots defensive backs taken in the second round — Duke Dawson, Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards — and wondered whether the small-school standout was destined for a similar fate.
Dugger was anything but a "safe" pick. But there is data out there to suggest that gambling on his athleticism was safer than you think.
'WHO IS THIS GUY?'
When Lenoir-Rhyne's new defensive coordinator Joel Taylor began watching tape of his team in January of 2019, he kept coming back to the defensive back making play, after play, after play, after play.
"I was just sitting there watching film," Taylor told The Next Pats Podcast, "and I was like, 'Dude, who is this guy? This big joker, catching balls, jumping over dudes, scoring touchdowns ... and he'd hit you like a Mack truck. Who is this guy?’"
Dugger's movement skills were such that they allowed him to stand out as one of the most dominant Division II players in the country. He was a man among boys in that regard.
But Taylor, now the defensive coordinator at Mercer, had seen NFL talent at small-school programs before. He was an assistant at South Carolina State when Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave were there. And it was clear to him, Dugger's physical gifts qualified as special even among that group.
It didn't take long for league evaluators to come to the same conclusion.
"A Jaguars scout came down and [Dugger] ran a 4.43 [40-yard dash]. And he didn't believe it," Taylor said. "All of a sudden, 'You gotta run it again. You gotta run it again.' And he ran a 4.49. Then it was like, 'All right. I gotta get a third one. Just to make sure that this is legit at your size.' And he ended up running a 4.46. That was awesome. From there, everything blew up for him."
But is Dugger so athletic we can label him a “safe” choice coming from a Division II program? Or “safer than you think,” even?
Luckily for us, there are folks who can help us quantify Dugger's athleticism. They can help us evaluate it beyond saying, “Running the 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range at almost 220 pounds is pretty impressive!”
At Mockdraftable.com, there is a massive database of combine participants (and pro day performers for certain players not invited to the combine) stretching all the way back to 2000. They calculate height, weight, arm length, hand size and a variety of athletic testing results to spit out a player's physical profile. That player’s top-10 physical comps — players from combines past — are then listed alongside the measurements collected, from most similar comps on down.
Dugger’s top comparisons were Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds (an 86.8 percent match), Chiefs safety Eric Berry (79.6) and Panthers safety Eric Reid (78.3). A little further down the list but still a 75 percent match is Chargers safety Derwin James, Taylor’s favorite stylistic comp for Dugger. Next is Falcons safety Keanu Neal.
Between those five players are eight Pro Bowl nods and four first-team All-Pro selections. Edmunds has neither, but he was a full-time starter at strong safety for the Steelers and played over 1,000 snaps last season as a second-year pro.
For some context, the only Pro Bowl players to land in the top-10 physical comps for Dawson, Richards or Jones — all of whom were more mediocre athletes — was Bills safety Micah Hyde and Titans corner Alterraun Verner. They were Jones’ No. 1 and No. 5 matches, respectively.
FUN WITH RAS
Dugger is, clearly, an unusually-talented athlete who shares physical traits with proven NFL talents. But to investigate further how Dugger’s athleticism will play at the NFL level, we played around with Kent Platte’s Relative Athletic Scores.
Platte (@MathBomb on Twitter) takes the same measurables used by Mockdraftable.com and then turns those into a “score,” from 0 to 10, to paint a picture of a prospect's athleticism relative to others at his position over the years.
Dugger posted a whopping RAS of 9.56 out of 10 thanks to his unusual length (33-inch arms, almost 10.5-inch hands), good speed (4.49-second 40) and ridiculous jumping ability. His 42-inch vertical and 134-inch broad jump placed him in the 99th percentile at his position for those tests.
With his RAS in hand, we tried to figure out what it might tell us about his odds for success as a pro. We searched Platte’s records from the last 10 drafts and sought out defensive backs taken in the first or second round with scores of 9.5 or better to see how they turned out as pros.
Why cut it off at the second round? Dugger was a second-round pick, and anyone taken within the first 64 picks of a draft we assume has some combination of other factors beyond sheer athleticism — strong tape, strong interviews, strong leadership qualities, strong football IQ — that would allow them to be drafted early. Pure track athletes don't typically go in the first two rounds.
"You have guys that run really good times, that jump really high, all that good stuff," Taylor said, "but they're not really good football players. You can really see that Kyle was a really good, instinctive football player."
We found 23 defensive backs taken in the first or second rounds who had Relative Athletic Scores of 9.5 or better from 2010-19. Of those 23, 11 (48 percent) made a Pro Bowl.
Not bad. Especially when stacked up against defensive backs from a handful of powerhouse programs who were drafted in the first two rounds in the same time frame.
There were 24 corners and safeties drafted in the first or second round out of Alabama, LSU and Florida State — arguably the three top programs in college football when it comes to sending productive defensive backs to the NFL — between 2010-19. And from that cross section of players, just like the elite RAS group, 11 made a Pro Bowl.
Of course making a Pro Bowl isn't an ideal marker of NFL success. There are one-year wonders. The Pro Bowl selection process itself is flawed. But it is typically reserved for players who are, at the very least, quality starters for a season.
Still, we wanted to dive deeper to find another metric to find the number of quality starters hailing from both the high-end RAS group and powerhouse program group.
To do that we tallied the number of players from each group who had at least one season as a primary starter who also graded out at 70.0 or more on Pro Football Focus. The high-end RAS crowd had 15 of 23 (65 percent) players meet that criteria for at least one season. The 'Bama/LSU/FSU crowd had 16 of 24 (67 percent) meet that criteria for at least one season.
23 DBs WITH 9.5+ RAS SCORES TAKEN 1ST/2ND ROUND
- 15 (65%) have at least one season as a quality starter (70.0 PFF grade or better)
- 11 (48%) have at least one Pro Bowl on their résumé
24 DBs FROM LSU, BAMA, FSU TAKEN 1ST/2ND ROUND
- 16 (67%) have at least one season as a quality starter (70.0 PFF grade or better)
- 11 (46%) have at least one Pro Bowl on their résumé
There are players who overlapped and qualified for both the Alabama/LSU/FSU and high-end RAS groups from the last decade: Eric Reid, Patrick Peterson, Jalen Ramsey and Marlon Humphrey.
But for every Landon Collins (a lesser tester from ‘Bama) there’s a Byron Jones (record-setting combine performer from UConn). For every Tre’Davious White (a lesser tester from LSU), there’s an Eric Berry (an top-tier height-weight-speed athlete from Tennessee). There are players from both sides, too, who never provided value equal to their draft position. Taylor Mays, Obi Melifonwu and Sean Davis were all next-level athletes. Dee Milliner, Mo Claiborne and Cyrus Jones were all considered safe bets based on what they showed at next-level programs.
The numbers we've compiled here do not represent a perfect study by any means. But based on these two very simple criteria, it appears as though you're about as likely to find a quality defensive back in the first or second round whether you draft someone from the high-end RAS bucket or the Alabama/LSU/FSU bucket.
'SAFE' IS A STRONG WORD
Even if Dugger's athleticism makes him a safer bet than his level of college competition would indicate, he's still a Division II prospect headed to a league that hasn't seen those types succeed on a grand scale. He did, however, answer questions about how he'd compete against better competition with his Senior Bowl performance in Mobile, Ala.
In the one-on-one drills there, he got his hands on the football on three out of five reps (one interception, two breakups). He forced a fumble in a run-game practice rep. Then, in the game itself, the NFL staffs on the sidelines wanted to see him all over the field so he aligned in the box (25 snaps), as a single-high safety (13 snaps), as a split safety (3 snaps) and in the slot (3 snaps). He led all players in tackles in the game with seven, and he broke up a pass intended for Dayton's Adam Trautman, one of the top tight ends in the draft class.
Dugger was, as we described on The Next Pats Podcast, on the scene for a pair of touchdowns in the Senior Bowl game when he appeared to get lost in coverage. That's a part of his skill set, by all accounts, that'll require refinement as he gets his feet under him at the NFL level. Still, his performance that week was enough to convince Bill Belichick that Dugger was worthy of a top-40 pick.
"I think the Senior Bowl really helped Kyle," Belichick said after the draft. "There he's running a pro defense against a pro offense with soon-to-be pro players. Whether it was one-on-one drills, catching punts, tackling, I think you could really see he was able to compete very favorably at that level of competition and his scheme represents something close to what we'd be doing.
"It was a short window, but it was a full week of practice, a game. I think I saw a lot of improvement during the week and feel like this is a kid that's smart, that works hard, that has a lot of ability. We'll see how much time it takes. I'm sure it will take some time to make those adjustments. I'm confident he'll work hard and be able to handle the things we give him. In time he'll be able to do them."
If that sounds confident from Belichick, you can understand why. Dugger might not have been the definition of a "safe" pick. But his atypical athleticism, his performance at the Senior Bowl, and the drive he's exhibited since being denied a FBS scholarship offer made him safer than his Division II billing would suggest.