It's a common refrain in the NFL that players should make a significant jump forward in their progress in their second season and the Patriots are certainly hoping that's the case with Josh Uche and Kyle Dugger. Both got some valuable experience as rookies, with Dugger logging 518 snaps and Uche playing 178, and both are now spending their first offseason watching and listening to some former Patriots greats as they look to break out in year two.
For Uche, part of his second season will involve a number change as he returned No. 53 to Kyle Van Noy, making the change to No. 55, a number first made famous in New England by Willie McGinest.
"I love it, man," Uche said of the change. "Just the legacy that comes behind it. Just everything that comes with the No. 55. You've got Junior Seau, you've got the obvious one with McGinest. It's an honor to even be allowed to wear a number like that."
Uche has gotten more familiar with McGinest this offseason as he's brushed up on past Patriots teams, re-watching some of the greatest moments from the early parts of the dynasty.
"I've just been going back and watching the old Patriots Super Bowls," Uche said Tuesday afternoon. "Big games. Just seeing guys like [Willie] obviously throughout those games, just the way he dominated the game, the tenacity those guys played with definitely gives you that old school vibe of football."
"You can always be more aggressive," Uche said describing what he took from the film study. "Like Rodney Harrison, (Richard) Seymour, how aggressive they are. They're just gangster. Like, they'll hit you in the mouth, get up, talk a little smack to you and come right back with it. So definitely can take those things away from their game."
This season, Uche is expected to have the chance to play with a similar kind of Patriots leader in Dont'a Hightower, the prospect of which was brought up to him on the video conference.
"If we're being transparent, I remember in the draft process a team would ask me kind of how I wanted to be used as a football player, and I just remember watching Dont'a Hightower all the time in college," Uche recalled. "I just think he's a phenomenal football player. Just to even share a locker room with him is truly an honor. God-willing, if we share the field together, then that will be another [honor]."
Another more recent Patriots legend that also has had an impact on Uche's offseason this year was Patrick Chung.
"[Patrick Chung] said something that stuck with me, which was 'learn til you die,'" Uche said. "The moment that you think that you know everything is the moment that you've lost. So I'm just trying to learn every day and get better every day."
Like Uche, Kyle Dugger was also influenced by Chung, who kept in contact with the rookie throughout his first season despite having opted out of 2020.
"'Grab things, take hold of them. Trust yourself,'" Dugger said of Chung's advice to him. "Trust what you've learned, what you've been taught [your] first year. And really trust yourself to be able to take off. Be able to play faster and allow yourself to just be in your own rhythm."
Dugger felt like he started to play faster as his first season progressed, telling reporters he felt noticeably more comfortable about Week 5, which also happened to be the game he got hurt and would cost him two games of valuable development time.
Still, Dugger was able to return and resume his progress, ending the year on a strong note by playing every snap against the Jets in the finale.
This offseason he's had his own dip into historical film study, breaking down former safety greats like Rodney Harrison and Troy Polamalu, two of the best to ever do it and two who share many similar traits to Dugger.
What did Dugger's studies reveal?
"Just the trust in their football instincts," Dugger relayed. "Some stuff that they do, you either have it just by trusting and playing the game — trusting in yourself — or you don't. Some of the plays they make are really just the trust they had in themselves and what they saw, what their eyes told them, and going and making a play on it."
Now on track for a full and almost-normal offseason, both second-year players will be counted on to help form the next wave of Patriots performers. Though an influx of veterans might mean more competition, Dugger and Uche are still very much key pieces for the future and both are energized for the coming year.