With his first pick as New England Patriots coach in the post-Tom Brady era, Bill Belichick had his dog, Nike, nearby and delivered a mild surprise by selecting small-school safety Kyle Dugger of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University early in the second round (No. 37) of the 2020 NFL draft.
Dugger, whose draft stock rose after he participated in the Senior Bowl and then took part in the NFL combine, easily becomes the highest drafted player in the history of Lenoir-Rhyne (located in Hickory, North Carolina).
“It’s a small campus, but the support is very caring. Just being from there, and being able to represent them in this situation, is huge,” Dugger said Friday night. “They gave me the opportunity to play football, to compete playing the game I love. It’s going to be a huge honor to give them recognition.”
Dugger, 24, is the first draft pick from Lenoir-Rhyne since defensive end John Milem in 2000 (fifth round, San Francisco 49ers) and is just the ninth player drafted from the school. He said that as a Division II player he has a “mountain on my shoulders” that he will carry throughout his career.
He earned the Cliff Harris Award in 2019, given to the best Division II defensive player.
But although Dugger comes from a small school, he was hardly an unknown on the scouting trail. Some analysts projected him to go in the second round. When he earned a hand-delivered invitation to the Senior Bowl by executive director Jim Nagy in November, the moment went viral on social media. He was the only Division II player in the game.
At just shy of 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds, Dugger projects as a safety who can fill linebacker-type duties in certain packages. That’s a similar role to veteran starter Patrick Chung, who enters his 12th NFL season in 2020. Dugger also projects as a core contributor on special teams, which Belichick always values.
The Patriots are deep at safety, with Chung and Devin McCourty returning atop the depth chart, and having agreed to a free-agent deal with former Los Angeles Charger Adrian Phillips in the offseason. They also have Terrence Brooks returning, with Cody Davis, Obi Melifonwu, Malik Gant and Adarius Pickett filling out the roster.