Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger becoming an elite draft prospect

    Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger continues to shoot up 2020 NFL Draft boards as a top sleeper from the Division II level.

    Another postseason All-Star game is in the books, and more prospects have emerged as contenders to hear their names called in April’s 2020 NFL Draft. One player who stood out during Saturday’s Senior Bowl was Lenoir-Rhyne safety, Kyle Dugger. 

    The versatile cover-man made plays all over the field and put himself more squarely on the NFL map. Below I will take a look at the storied career of the supremely talented and overachieving defensive back. Dugger’s NFL journey is just beginning, and it was evident during the Reese’s Senior Bowl that his future is a bright one. 

    Playmaker right from the start

    Before becoming a Division II star safety at Lenoir-Rhyne, Kyle Dugger was a two-sport phenom as a prep who excelled in both football and basketball. He started in both sports as a prep junior and senior. During his senior year in high school, Dugger recorded 80 tackles, three interceptions, and five pass deflections. 

    Dugger also played quarterback for Whitewater high school in Fayetteville, Georgia. Despite his athletic accolades, Dugger did not receive the desired attention from any major college football programs and decided to attend Lenoir-Rhyne to continue his football and academic career. 

    Dugger’s college career got off to a slow start as he redshirted his first year at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2014 and after his redshirt freshman season, he had to take a medical redshirt in 2016. Before the medical absence, Dugger showed tremendous potential and was a prominent star in the making as a redshirt freshman. He started 10 games and recorded 43 tackles, four interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. He also led the team with six pass deflections and showed a ball-hawking nature early on. 

    The play-making safety continued to impress onlookers during his redshirt sophomore campaign, as he accounted for 87 total tackles and a punt return touchdown on special teams. That season he averaged 9.9 yards per return and was a second-team All-Conference selection. That return ability parlayed Dugger into a first-team All-South Atlantic Conference as a safety and return man as a redshirt junior in 2018. 

    Dugger’s junior year and beyond

    During his redshirt junior season, Dugger thrived as both a returner and defensive back. In 14 games, he averaged 17.2 yards per punt return, along with three interceptions and a whopping 13 pass deflections. College football fans and coaches were starting to take notice as Dugger continued to dominate and prove himself to be one of the more exciting players at the Division II level. 

    Entering his senior season in 2019, Dugger was considered a big-time Division II player to watch for Lenoir-Rhyne and a real sleeper at the safety position. Before the season, Dugger’s impact at the Division II level and the draft landscape was well-documented here. In this article, Dugger’s strengths and potential are broken down, including his ability to play linebacker at the next level. He diagnoses plays very quickly and shows a great willingness to blitz well and stop ball-carriers in their tracks. 

    The senior standout continued to show tremendous progress as a cover man in 2019 as well. Despite being cut short due to injury, Dugger made a huge impact once again this past season. He amassed 31 tackles, four passes defended, and two picks, one of which he returned for a score. Dugger added another two scores on punt returns as he continued to show his scoring prowess and versatility. 

    He is an intelligent player that always seems to be around the ball. His ability to cover a lot of ground and make plays all over the field will be very attractive to NFL teams. Another big part of his game is his tremendous length. His size (6’0″, 217 lbs) and speed will allow him the ability to match up with both slot men and receiving tight ends at the next level. He is one of the more complete players I have watched at the Division II level. It’s not inconceivable Dugger could come off the board as early as the third round due to his extreme flexibility in the secondary and on special teams. 

    NFL comparisons and future draft positioning

    Only a host of defensive backs have entered the NFL and excelled as returners and in coverage. The most recent success is Los Angeles Chargers’ Pro Bowler Desmond King. The explosive return man entered the league as an outside corner prospect out of Iowa and has turned into one of the best nickel/slot corners in football. He has also been one of the most consistent punt returners through his first two seasons. King earned the highest coverage grade out of all slot corners in 2018.

    This past season, King took a slight step back as the team struggled to a record of 5-11. However, he did return another punt for a score and provided stability to a Chargers’ secondary that was without star safety Derwin James for all but five games of 2019 due to injury. Even though they play different positions, Dugger could occupy a similar role to King in the NFL. He did a great job covering tight ends and moving around the defense in Mobile. He made seven tackles, including this crucial stop in the red zone against Adam Trautman of Dayton. 

    To learn more about how Dugger improved his draft position during this big, all-star contest, take a look at this Tuesday piece from PFN’s own Bill Riccette. Riccette’s article shares a similar sentiment in regards to Dugger’s stock since the Senior Bowl, even taking it a step further. He says, “Some draft boards have Dugger just inside their top-100. This week may have moved Dugger into the top-75 territory and early third-round consideration. Who knows, if he blows up the Combine perhaps he can sneak into the second round.” 

    The second round would be quite the meteoric rise for a player from Lenoir-Rhyne in Kyle Dugger’s position to start his college career, but he has undoubtedly earned that spot and could become a star safety at the next level. If and when Dugger is drafted, he will be the first Bear drafted since John Milem by the San Francisco 49ers in 2000. Teams such as the Chargers, as mentioned above or the New England Patriots, who value that extreme versatility, could come calling for Dugger on day two or three of the 2020 NFL Draft. 

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