Stung by their worst playoff loss in a decade, the Patriots took a trip last January to heal.

Bill Belichick went. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels packed a bag. The entire defensive staff traveled, too, prepared to be away for several days.

Their destination wasn’t some relaxing, beachy paradise pulled out of a postcard. It was Mobile, Ala., home of the Senior Bowl, an annual showcase for elite draft prospects.

This was the first offseason in years the Patriots could send a large contingent to the Senior Bowl, their schedule cleared of any upcoming championship games. Bitter as their wild-card defeat to the Titans had been, its timing was in a way perfect.

Win or loss, the task ahead of the Patriots would have been the same: Build a draft class that can continue laying the foundation for another decade of success. An aging roster with obvious holes suddenly needed more than free-agent stopgaps. It required rejuvenation.

Mobile was a sensible place to start.

At the Senior Bowl, prospects are divided into two teams, drilled over three midweek practices and quizzed constantly over their week-long stay, which culminates in a televised game. They’re scrutinized from the moment they arrive on Sunday all the way through Saturday’s final whistle.

Bill Belichick and Nick Saban talk as the South squad runs drills during practice for the Senior Bowl in January. Belichick and the Patriots have drafted at least three Senior Bowl alumni in each of the last four years. Butch Dill/Associated Press

The Patriots love the Senior Bowl.

Including their 2020 class, the Patriots have drafted at least three Senior Bowl alumni each of the last four years. Since 2013, they’ve signed 33 to rookie contracts. The Patriots knew No. 34 might help make or break the future of their dynasty.

To that player, a broad-shouldered safety standing at a chiseled 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds, with long arms and springs in his shoes, the Senior Bowl also meant everything. Kyle Dugger hailed from a Division II school, a source of strength for him but a weakness in scouts’ eyes.

His competition at Lenoir-Rhyne, a tiny North Carolina school nestled at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, had been two steps below lower-level FBS programs like Akron and Wyoming, where pro talent is sparse. It was appreciably worse than FCS football, which produces maybe one or two bankable prospects per year. Playing at a Division II school, where the undergrad population falls shy of 2,000 and football dreams come stamped with an expiration date – Senior Day – had muddled his evaluation.

“He was really almost an impossible guy to put a grade on because you’re watching that division on tape, and he was just so dominant,” said Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, a former scout for the Patriots, Chiefs and Seahawks. “He gets the ball in his hands on interceptions and punt returns, and guys don’t even want to tackle him.”

What the Senior Bowl offered Dugger was a final exam at the end of a lifelong schooling in football. He’d already been held back two years, delayed in high school by a late-arriving growth spurt and two redshirt seasons in college. But as an upperclassman at Lenoir-Rhyne, he’d checked every box he could: the physical, as an elite tester in combine drills; the mental, as a multi-position defender with a deep football knowledge; and emotional, as a team leader who’d committed himself to the game.

By the time Dugger arrived in Mobile on Sunday, Jan. 19, he was literally a 24-year-old man among boys.

All he had to do was play like one before hundreds of evaluators, and convince them he belonged.

“One of the things you like to see, or look for, with a player with that background,” said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, “is how they hold up in that environment.”

Piece of cake.

Three months later, after trading out of the draft’s first round, the Patriots identified their three top targets heading into Day 2. Sitting at home, Caserio scribbled their names out on a short list. Sure enough, while broadcasting the Patriots’ initial pick at 37th overall, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced one of the names: Kyle Dugger, safety, Lenoir-Rhyne.

That week – and this story – is how Dugger’s name landed on the Patriots’ list.

NOT OUT OF PLACE

One hour before the Senior Bowl kicked off, a light breeze snaked through Mobile’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium under scattered clouds. The wind kept the on-field temperature a touch below 60 degrees and warming punt returners on their toes. So NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, who had observed practices all week, sidled up to one of the top performers to see if he had found his footing.

“Ready to go? Ready to roll, Dugger?” Davis asked.

“Man,” Dugger shot back coolly, “I was ready to roll when I got here.”

Nagy saw it.

The previous Sunday, Dugger had been dropped off at the Senior Bowl’s hotel lobby, where Nagy immediately greeted him. It’s a courtesy Nagy extends to every player, though he was particularly interested in meeting his lone Division II prospect face-to-face. Because before he had extended Dugger an invite in November, Nagy required assurances from Lenoir-Rhyne’s coaches that their star safety wouldn’t “pee down his leg.”

This is how Nagy, a veteran of 23 Senior Bowls, described the performances of a few small-school prospects in the past who couldn’t handle the spotlight in Mobile. Now as the Senior Bowl’s head, Nagy didn’t want any repeat showings under his watch. Studying Dugger in that moment and the hours that followed, he sensed a deep-seated calm and confidence about him.

Nagy’s gut told him the kid was alright.

“The biggest takeaway for me was how he showed up, and his mindset that he belonged. He wasn’t overwhelmed by it,” Nagy remembered. “You could see it in his eyes that he was in his element.”

Dugger’s element is competing on a football field, but he had a laundry list of items to address before Tuesday’s first practice.

Like every other prospect, Dugger was subject to a medical evaluation and photo shoot, then sat through an orientation and series of interviews with scouts, all on Sunday night. On Monday, he met with his new coaches, the Bengals defensive staff that would be leading the Senior Bowl’s South Team, combed through his playbook and completed more front-office interviews. Once evaluators were done with him around 11 p.m., it was all football, all the time, for the rest of the week.

On the field, Dugger took over immediately, according to Sirius XM NFL analyst and former Patriots quarterback Jim Miller.

“Dugger just stood out. I mean, he wasn’t intimidated going against anybody from the SEC or any conference,” said Miller, who covered Senior Bowl practices and the game. “The guy was just a man down there.”

Despite Nagy’s suggestion to occasionally rep him at linebacker, the Bengals coaches drilled Dugger all afternoon at defensive back. He displayed a smooth back pedal and notable burst when changing directions in coverage, always under control. No running backs or tight ends could shake him cleanly.

In the run game, Dugger’s instincts put him a half-step ahead of most ball carriers, whose blockers were locked at a distance and then redirected by his long arms. His physicality was unmistakable, a hallmark of his game at Lenoir-Rhyne where he would deliver devastating hits and stand still as his target crumpled to the ground.

The questions about Dugger’s game, as a big-bodied safety with 4.4 speed and rare versatility, were slowly evaporating, starting with his cover skills.

“The man-to-man coverage stuff that you didn’t see a ton of (at Lenoir-Rhyne) – and even when you did see it at that level, you’re doubting it – was big,” Nagy said. “With those long arms, even when he was out of position to make a play, he could still make a play.”

Then again, even as NFL scouts buzzed in the stands about Dugger’s game and the once unknown safety made waves in post-practice media reports, it had only been one day.

Until it became two.

On Wednesday, Dugger strapped himself to tight ends in 1-on-1 drills, even intercepting future top-10 pick quarterback Justin Herbert on one rep.

Dugger finished the week having forced as many incompletions as receptions he allowed during 1-on-1s. He was one of two players to snag an interception all week.

The fact Dugger had enjoyed a second positive practice was as important as the upward trend in his performance. The tougher the competition became, the greater the pressure grew, the better he was.

“I thought he was more confident each and every day going through drills, footwork, coverage, all of those things,” Davis said. “The contact was never an issue for him. That was kind of the fallback. Like, when in doubt, smack somebody, because that’s what he does really well.”

Dugger improved as a returner, too. After letting one punt slip on Tuesday, the type of error Nagy says he forgives most prospects because of Day 1 nerves, he caught everything and ripped off multiple explosive returns showcasing acceleration, long speed and vision. Later, during the Senior Bowl game, Dugger broke two tackles on returns, one of which went for 18 yards before getting called back by a teammates’ holding penalty.

Inclement weather on Thursday forced both teams’ final practices inside, where the physicality wound down and periods were more situation-specific; third down, red zone, etc. But Dugger had already left a lasting, big-picture impression on evaluators.

He could play.

“I was eager to see how he handled things. And he went in, every day, and handled it. He wasn’t treading water, he wasn’t just holding his own,” Davis said. “He was playing.”

At the end of his final practice, though, Dugger couldn’t get past certain details of his performance; the pass breakups that could have been interceptions, the pair of catches he surrendered in 1-on-1s, and the snippets of adequate play that interrupted his days of dominance.

“It went OK, but it could’ve been a lot better,” he told NFL.com.

How Patriot is that?

HIDDEN GEM

As the 2019 college football season dawned in late August, Nagy continued a 23-year tradition: hitting the road from his home in Mobile.

Each week, Nagy scoured campuses for prospects who might be worthy of the 2020 Senior Bowl. Along the way, he ran into old scouting friends. Inevitably, most would pop the same question.

Are you inviting the Lenoir-Rhyne kid?

The short answer was yes. Nagy had already decided over the summer.

Dugger had captivated the scouting world after he’d been discovered in March by National Football Scouting, one of two services to which almost every NFL front office subscribes and contributes. Once a Seahawks scout unearthed Dugger for NFS in March, noting his 4.4 speed and his size, the rest of the league went digging.

Most scouts met with Dugger during their in-season visits, a rarity. Typically, NFL evaluators travel to campuses to watch film, and confer with assistant coaches and members of the strength and conditioning staff about prospects, not meet the players themselves.

Dugger, in every sense, became an exception.

One NFL front office sent seven scouts through Lenoir-Rhyne, and several other franchises were known to be interested. The Panthers’ interest was all but public record, with scouts frequently driving to campus, their headquarters only an hour away. It was no accident the Patriots later pulled the trigger on Dugger one pick ahead of Carolina.

They loved what they saw, especially in Mobile.

“I think the Senior Bowl really helped Kyle,” Belichick said after the draft. “There, he’s running a pro defense against a pro offense with soon-to-be pro players. Whether it was 1-on-1 drills, catching punts, tackling, I think you could really see he was able to compete very favorably at that level of competition and his scheme represents something close to what we’d be doing.

“It was a short window, but it was a full week of practice, a game. I think I saw a lot of improvement during the week and feel like this is a kid that’s smart, that works hard, that has a lot of ability.”

During the Senior Bowl game, Dugger posted a game-high seven tackles. He recorded a pass breakup, draped himself over the top tight end prospects in coverage and played like a heat-seeking missile around the line of scrimmage.

“He was nice off the edge, making plays and throwing his body around,” Nagy said. “Just playing smart, physical football, and he picked it up quickly.”

Dugger was also in the vicinity of one passing touchdown and showed touch-and-go awareness in zone coverage. No prospect is perfect.

The only question that remained after Dugger’s Senior Bowl showing was why had he stayed at Lenoir-Rhyne for so many years. Clearly, he could play at the highest level.

So following the Senior Bowl, Miller asked Dugger. He would later remark that Dugger ranked among the most mature prospects he has ever interviewed. That feeling stemmed mostly from Dugger’s reply to the big question, which he’d answered firmly like all the others he’d faced in Mobile.

“He was happy there. And he just said, ‘You know what? If I’m good enough, they’ll find me,'” Miller recalled. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

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