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Kyle Dugger "Picks" Up Where He Left Off at Patriots Training Camp

The Patriots fourth-year safety kicked off the opening of training camp with one of the day's most notable plays, now searching for consistency as free agency approaches next offseason.

Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23).
Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23).

There was a palpable shift on the practice fields and in the surrounding stands behind Gillette Stadium when, about midway into the Patriots first training camp practice of the 2023 season, the entire team began making their way toward one of the end zones. After stretching, some light conditioning and positional drills, it was finally time for a period that felt somewhat competitive, somewhat like real football, at least as competitive and real as things can get in the early days of modern training camp with players still not in pads and unable to bring the physicality.

The top offense and defense lined up against each other in the low red zone, an annual starting point for team drills at camp. Mac Jones dropped back on the initial rep, targeting tight end Mike Gesicki up the seam in the end zone, only to find the pass picked off by Kyle Dugger, who came down with the ball in traffic, giving the defense the perfect start to the new season.

Mac and the offense would bounce back and make their share of plays in limited opportunities, all of which came within 15 yards of the end zone, including a pair of touchdowns to Hunter Henry and one to Ty Montgomery, but that first play belonged to the defense and proved to be the first big play made of the new season. It shouldn't have been a surprise that it was Dugger who made it.

A year after a breakout season that saw him return two interceptions for touchdowns and take a fumble to the house while having the second-most total tackles on the team, Dugger gave fans a glimpse of his growing talent, kicking off the final year of his rookie contract in style.

"Just going thru the fundamentals, staying my leverage, realizing where the middle field player was then getting a good break underneath and being able to get my eyes back in time," said Dugger of the play before adding that it was actually the next play that illustrated his goals for the season. "It's always a good thing to start fast, really it's more about stringing things together. The next play I had a mental error and things like that can't happen. That's the more important thing, being consistent."

Dugger elaborated, again bringing up consistency as a key for him this year, "Not having those drops of focus in play. Just being the same all game, all practice. Just continue to communicate and work that communication with my teammates and even over-communicating on the field. Things like that are definitely things I have to continue to do."

Since being selected in the second round in 2020, Dugger has emerged as a physical safety/linebacker hybrid player, finding himself in roles all over the Patriots defense. 419 of his snaps came in the box, 168 snaps had him in the slot in an overhang role, 82 he was on the back end as a free safety and he even chipped in 30 snaps along the defensive line.

He's shown he can do it all but this season is still a big one for Dugger. Reliable back-end safety Devin McCourty retired and Dugger could be facing free agency in 2024, though he said he's keeping his focus on the field and letting his agent worry about the contract stuff. How will the team replace McCourty's presence is a big question and Dugger figures to be heavily involved in whatever the answer is as the team looks to deploy their remaining three returning safeties in the most effective way possible, a group that returns Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers.

"Of course when the defense gets a pick we love it," said Phillips of the pick that got the defense off on the right foot. The trio was highly active during the practice session, with a couple of newcomers working with the group as well like Jalen Mills and rookie Marte Mapu.

With tighter windows and less room for mistakes, training camp's early red zone work makes life difficult for everyone and should be a staple of every early practice. Despite their early success, the defense is seeing new challenges from the offense across from them, as Bill O'Brien is quickly molding the attack to his liking.

"[The offense] definitely [has] a lot of things they can get to and they can make it look a lot of different ways," said Dugger. "It only makes us better and makes them better as well and challenges us, so I'm definitely happy to see it."

With camp just getting underway, Dugger will have plenty of opportunities to find the consistency he's searching for to fully round out his already impressive game. An end-zone interception on the first day is a nice starting point and one that should only fuel the team's energy as they begin to move forward in their process.

"It's hard to put it into words," said Dugger of how it felt to be back on the field. "It's football time so there's a bunch of excitement. We're just ready to get rolling, start putting pieces together and grow."

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