FOXBORO — During the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year, at an Indianapolis bar, there was a discussion between scouts and coaches about college players who'd made names for themselves at the Senior Bowl, which had just taken place.
One AFC scout straightened his hand and slowly lifted it across his body, like a plane taking off on a runway. The "riser" he liked most? Kyle Dugger, a Division II safety out of Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, North Carolina.
Flash forward nearly six months later and Dugger — who posted eye-popping measurables in Indy — is making plays on a daily basis at Patriots training camp. The second-round pick, who was the first player selected by Bill Belichick after Belichick traded out of the bottom of the first round, has had his hands on the football for three consecutive practices this week.
On Monday, Dugger stripped receiver Jakobi Meyers during a ball-security drill. On Tuesday, he intercepted quarterback Jarrett Stidham as a deep safety. On Wednesday, he picked off Cam Newton in the end zone, and he nearly picked off Stidham on the very next play. A few plays later, Dugger broke up a pass from Brian Hoyer that was intended for tight end Ryan Izzo.
"I think he does a good job just being around the football," Devin McCourty said Tuesday. "Whether he's down, whether he's on the back end, he's done a good job of that so far."
Had it not been for Patrick Chung opting out due to COVID earlier this offseason, Dugger's opportunities might've been limited. He's working into the defense while veteran free-agent acquisition Adrian Phillips plays a similar role. But the rookie is doing all he can with the snaps he gets.
Whether playing in the deep portion of the field, over the slot, or down in the box at the linebacker level, Dugger has the athletic gifts to pull off a variety of tasks for Belichick — even as he makes a massive leap in competition level. Dugger's defensive coordinator at Lenoir-Rhyne said that it may take some time for him to contribute defensively as he gets adjusted during a shortened offseason. But he wondered if Dugger might be able to eventually look like Chargers All-Pro safety Derwin James.
That's a lofty comparison. But the way Dugger has handled this week of training camp practice, you couldn't be blamed for wondering if the sky's the limit for him.
Here's how the rest of the day went on the fields behind Gillette Stadium . . .
WHAT THEY WORE
Helmets and shells. That meant it was a lighter day from a contact perspective. But it also meant there was plenty of work done on the passing game.
WHO WAS OUT
N'Keal Harry was not spotted all morning. It's unclear as to why he missed practice, but it's worth monitoring. How he develops in Year 2 could go a long way in determining how the passing game comes along in New England. Sony Michel and Lamar Miller (physically unable to perform list) were both among the missing, as were rookie receiver Jeff Thomas and rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings. Like Harry, Derek Rivers was a new absence. His defensive teammates Beau Allen and Tashawn Bower were out as well.
WHAT THEY DID
Plenty of passing. After a dynamic warmup and walkthrough period, the quarterbacks went to work on their play-action footwork. Meanwhile, on a different area of the field, receivers repeatedly were asked to make shoestring catches in a drill with director of player personnel Nick Caserio zipping the football. (The former John Carroll University quarterback is often asked to be an extra arm at this time of year.)
After drills, the offense and defense worked against one another in a 3-on-4 offense-versus-defense period. That was followed up by a 7-on-7 period and an 11-on-11 period. After some kickoff work the team did more 11-on-11 stuff, followed by a punt team period.
The practice ended with some competitive red-zone passing — 7-on-7 then 11-on-11 — and conditioning on Mount Belichick, also known as The Hills.
QUARTERBACK REP REPORT
Reps were relatively evenly split once again, and all three primary quarterbacks took reps at different points as the first quarterback up. In 7-on-7 periods, Cam Newton went 4-for-7 with two interceptions. Stidham went 3-for-6, and Hoyer went 4-for-6. In 11-on-11 work, Newton went 4-for-9 (with two passes dropped). Stidham went 9-for-13 with a pick and Hoyer went 8-for-14 (with one pass dropped).
Stidham had several very nice passes on the day. He hit rookie tight end Dalton Keene on a post route, leading him perfectly for some yardage after the catch, during 7-on-7s. He also threw a perfect seam pass to rookie tight end Jake Burt in 3-on-4 work with Dugger all over the intended target. Two of his best throws — two of the best of any quarterback — came at the end of the practice. Byrd was the target again for a bomb down the middle. J.J. Taylor caught the other in the front corner of the end zone while blanketed by linebacker Terez Hall.
Newton hit a nice deep comeback to Gunner Olszewski with Stephon Gilmore on him. Well-timed. On a line. Hard to get any better than that. He hit a similar route — a deep out — to Byrd with J.C. Jackson close in coverage later in the practice. Newton also hit a quick little dart over the middle to Julian Edelman. He pumped... pumped... then threw, maybe indicating some uncertainty as to when Edelman would break off his route. But the throw was on time and on the money.
Newton was picked by linebacker Cassh Maluia early in the session in 7-on-7s. Nice play by the rookie, who had to leap to secure the turnover. Bad throw by the quarterback, who never saw Maluia dropping into his zone. (Two throws before this one, Newton was nearly picked by Stephon Gilmore when targeting Isaiah Zuber.) Newton's interception to Dugger in the red zone was not a very good throw, but it was a contested play and Dugger out-muscled and out-positioned Ryan Izzo for the pick. Not Newton's best throw. But not his worst, either.
Like Newton, Stidham had some issues throwing behind his receivers at times. One came during the first 11-on-11 period of practice when he had J.J. Taylor available and just shot it behind the rookie back. Later he underthrew speedy wideout Damiere Byrd that resulted in an easy pick by J.C. Jackson. Not great.
Brian Hoyer was typically steady when it came to hitting the throws one might expect him to hit. But he had an opportunity to hit Gunner Olszewski on a deep ball early in the practice but overshot him. He also missed Devin Ross on a deep over route when the pass was placed behind the target.
J.J. Taylor: There are opportunities aplenty for Patriots running backs, and J.J. Taylor — one of the most enjoyable to watch rookies available in this year's draft — made the most of them on Wednesday. His best play was a contested grab where the 5-foot-6, 185-pounder climbed the ladder and wrestled the football away from linebacker Terez Hall.
Damiere Byrd: With Harry missing, there were opportunities available for wideouts, too. Byrd was the primary beneficiary. His speed is obvious as he was targeted deep down the field four times. One on an out-route (mentioned above) from Newton. One on a deep completion from Stidham. Stidham tried to hit Byrd twice more but was off the mark. One pass deep down the middle was under-shot. One deep crosser was thrown too far out ahead of him. Even though all his targets weren't successes, Byrd's speed stands out. The Patriots could use it.
Julian Edelman: Two drops for the veteran slot machine. One went through his hands after he completely shook undrafted rookie corner Myles Bryant. The next came at the end of the practice — it was the last competitive throw of the day — when Newton tried to hit him on the goal line. The pass was well-placed but it skipped right through Edelman's mitts.
Rookie tight ends: Dalton Keene dropped a pass from Brian Hoyer and later was among the culprits up front when Chase Winovich knifed through the line for a "sack." Devin Asiasi also had two passes go off his hands in 11-on-11 work. Asiasi did have a nice play where he went up and over Devin McCourty during a 3-on-4 period for a good gain. And Keene ran a nice post to pick up a bunch of yards when targeted by Stidham. But it was an up-and-down day for both.