A quick look at the Bills’ defensive depth chart and one wouldn’t think that the safety position is a position that needs to be addressed. Two of the Bills’ most important and consistent players are safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. They are the lifelines of the entire coverage-based defensive scheme. Their ability to disguise coverages and match up with receivers and tight ends helps Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier sleep easier at night. Hyde and Poyer were also two of the first signings when Head Coach Sean McDermott came to Buffalo, a sign of their importance to the top-five-ranked defense. But Poyer is entering the final year of his four-year, 13-million dollar contract.
It’s a sub-package league, and McDermott has understood that for many years. He’s consistently been a sub-package defensive-minded coach. But he has also been one of the leaders when it comes to staying ahead of trends. In Carolina it was coined the “Buffalo Nickel” and the “Buffalo” package with the Bills. This personnel grouping in Carolina consisted of former college-safety-turned-linebacker Shaq Thompson, and in Buffalo, it’s safeties Siran Neal and Dean Marlowe. The purpose of this personnel grouping is to use their nickel personnel, something the Bills did the third most in 2019 at 69%, but to employ a nickel defender that can not only cover, but that can also fill in the run game. In Buffalo, McDermott has used this grouping less frequently, but generally it’s utilized versus teams that use two-tight end sets.
In 2019, Neal saw only 150 snaps as a big nickel or third safety in the slot. Most were early in the season, but he was heavily utilized in the Wild Card game.
Marlowe pitched in another 81 snaps as a slot player in the package, but a good chunk of those snaps came in a meaningless game.
Using safeties as a quasi-third linebacker to cover tight ends and running backs eliminates any mismatches that an offensive coordinator is looking to create. Frazier explained to the Buffalo News how using guys like Thompson, Neal, or Marlowe as a nickel defender doesn’t leave him questioning “how is this linebacker going to cover this running back? How are we going to win the down, knowing they’re trying to create this mismatch?”
Given the uncertainty of Poyer’s future in Buffalo and the “Buffalo” personnel grouping employed by Frazier, one guy that has been of interest to the Bills who can fill both roles in the short AND long term is safety Kyle Dugger from Divison II Lenoir-Rhyne.
Against the Run
If the Bills are leaning towards letting the 28-year-old Poyer hit the market next year, taking Dugger some time on day two of the draft would be a smart move. The move would give them a year to bring him along slowly at safety, but also use him in their ‘Buffalo’ package. He told me he expects to run the forty-yard dash in the 4.38-4.4-second range and was a standout in nearly every measurement at the Combine.
Official #NFLCombine safety measurements:
Tallest: Jeremy Chinn, 6-3
Heaviest: Tanner Muse, 227
Longest arms: Kyle Dugger, 32 7/8
Longest wing: Kyle Dugger, 78 1/2
Largest hands: Kyle Dugger, 10 3/8
— NFL Draft (@NFLDraft) February 27, 2020
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Dugger measured just under at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, with a frame that could honestly support more. This is why there have been discussions of him gaining weight and moving to linebacker. As a comparison, coming out of the draft, Shaq Thompson measured at 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, arm length of 33-inches and hands of 9.5 inches. When Bills LB Matt Milano was drafted in 2017, he measured in at 6-foot, 223 pounds, 32-inch arms and hands at 9.375. Neal was drafted in the 5th round; he measured in at 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, with an arm length of 31 1/8 inches and hands measuring in at 9.875. Dugger’s size, physicality, and rare athleticism would allow him to be used immediately.
Example of Dugger’s fluidity – watch as he rolls to the MOF. pic.twitter.com/MsVx1uReai
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 24, 2020
Dugger routinely flexed his muscles when coming down in run support. Below, you see a tight end attempting to push-crack to block Dugger, and he initiates the contact.
Tight end is in the slot and tries to push-crack to Dugger who is coming down to fill…DuggerDugger2 isn’t afraid of some contact! pic.twitter.com/3MYBYTXMWa
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 22, 2020
He has very good awareness on where blockers are coming from and is able to meet them with his strength or use his agility to avoid blocks and make the tackle.
My goodness. Here’s a taste of Safety Kyle Dugger’s athleticism. Look at his balance and footwork as he braces for contact and spins out of it…INCREDIBLE pic.twitter.com/Wb2kDG2XLZ
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 24, 2020
Being able to make tackles from the safety position when aligned in the box or coming from depth is extremely important. In 2019, Poyer was within eight yards of the line of scrimmage on 74.6% of his snaps. So he was a a big part of the primary or secondary wave of run defenders in the Bills’ defense. Dugger comes downhill with purpose from his safety position. He told Matthew Fairburn in his amazing interview that he referred to himself as “Mr. Fix-it.”
“I had to fix gaps and make sure nothing got split or nothing broke and kind of correct all the mistakes.”
Dugger’s ability to sort through traffic as he is dropping down into his run fit would be a perfect match in the Bills’ quarters concept coverages, where the safety generally is responsible for a gap.
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But let’s face it, it’s a passing league, so how does Dugger fare in that department? Let me start off by saying I think that it will take some time to adjust to the speed of NFL. His biggest issue in coverage is that he gets into trouble at the ‘collision point.’ This is the moment in off-coverage where the defender makes contact with the receiver and attempts to get ‘in-phase’. In college, Dugger was the best athlete on the field, so he could deliver a blow at the collision point and then use his athleticism to get into the receiver’s hip pocket or recover from any missteps along the way. But there were times where he failed to anticipate a change of direction prior to the collision or at top of a route, and even grabbed cloth in an attempt to recover. We saw several glimpses of this at the Senior Bowl.
But as General Manager Chris Ballard said on the Move the Sticks Podcast, “Speed allows you to make mistakes. You can make mistakes but still recover from it.” And we can see how Dugger’s speed routinely helps him erase a minor blip.
Yes, Kyle Dugger gets a little bit of jersey here, but that’s not what is important here.
Look at the ground he’s able to cover between the hashes to jump this route. A team is going to fall in love with his potential. pic.twitter.com/5Y3LSkvkT1
— Dalton Miller (@DaltonBMiller) January 25, 2020
While it’ll take him some time to adjust in the short and intermediate game, his speed will help eliminate the big plays down the field, which is the entire philosophy to the Bills’ defense. Dugger can match and carry athletic tight ends down the field, and doing that eliminates a position, tight end, that is arguably the biggest mismatch in the game. He did this routinely at Lenoir-Rhyne, and it’s something that he would need to be able to do whether as a safety in the Bills’ base defense or as a nickel defender in their ‘Buffalo’ personnel grouping.
But it wasn’t just tight ends; you can see that his athleticism will allow him to match the stop-and-go style of slot-type receivers. He is the prototype player that scouts refer to as ‘twitched up.’
Check out Dugger’s change of direction abilities. He was accelerating to top speed as to not get beat to the corner by the WR. Stops on a dime, finds the ball and makes the tackle. pic.twitter.com/bWTCj5SLxd
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 25, 2020
As we all know, the Bills’ defense is zone-heavy, so a defender must have the discipline to drop to his zone while reading the QB through the receivers. What makes Dugger such a fit for the Bills’ scheme is that he offers versatility as a single or two-high safety. Dugger has the range to play as a single-high safety when the Bills disguise a two-high look pre-snap, then change the picture on the QB post-snap and drop into a Cover 3 look. Watch him spin to the middle of the field, read the QB’s eyes, and let them take him to the ball.
Dugger makes things look so effortless. This ball floated but it didn’t matter. He was going to track this down no matter what. pic.twitter.com/08ZrIhrjMa
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 21, 2020
In coverage, his discipline and ability to cover a lot of green just pops on film. Teams routinely game-planned ways to get Dugger to bite or off his mark, but it rarely worked.
I imagine the offense was expecting Dugger to fill the alley on the apparent screen. But he hangs tight and then goes and makes a play on the ball. Not the best throw, but I believe Dugger is still in a great position to make a play deeper if it was necessary. pic.twitter.com/WE3hy6FcjO
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 25, 2020
Even though he played at a lower-tier school, they actually used a lot of coverage concepts that the bigger universities use on a weekly basis. For example, take a look at this quarters coverage concept, commonly known as ‘Stubbie.’ This coverage is a pattern-matching coverage where the route combinations decide who covers who. According to Dugger, in their system it was called ‘Special’ and was a common check to trips formations. What this means is that they would generally play or check to this coverage anytime they saw three receivers to one side.
This coverage speaks volumes to Dugger’s athleticism AND ability to adjust to the processing of routes at the next level. As you can see, the outside corner is man-to-man on the first wide receiver. The slot corner, Landon Scott, and Dugger are pattern matching the #2 and #3 receivers. So both players have their eyes on the #3 option. According to Dugger, if #3 runs vertically past eight yards, Dugger will have him man-to-man. Any shorter in-breaking route will be taken over by the linebacker, and any shorter out breaking route will be passed onto Scott, and Dugger will then look to help over the top. On this play, the #3 runs a dig at about ten yards, so Dugger has to break hard on the route.
He breaks inside and accelerates to the shoulder the ball should be thrown to, and he makes a play on the ball at the catch point.
What you see Dugger executing in this coverage translates to the Bills’ scheme in so many ways. Working with an adjacent teammate to defend or pass on a route is the primary principle behind zone coverage. But it also translates to the quarters-heavy and robber coverages the Bills love to run, which is why they are so good at minimizing big plays down the field. In quarters, Bills safeties are sometimes asked to carry the #2 receiver down the field if he passes a certain depth. That’s why, like Poyer and Hyde, Dugger’s background as a corner helps out so well. Here’s another example of Dugger processing the route combination in their ‘special’ play call.
Were teams able to take advantage of this coverage? Of course, this puts a lot of stress on Dugger, especially when teams attack the middle of the field. But even if the pass was completed, they had Dugger coming downhill like a cheetah stalking his prey. The margin for error was small, and if you failed to execute, Dugger could make them pay like he did on this ‘special’ coverage call.
Teams came to expect the defense in this coverage against trips, so they tried to confuse who the #3 player was as to muddy up the reads. So at times, the Bears would just switch to man coverage, like they did on this play. Dugger told me that “the offense was trying to confuse them all day with motion, so they just had to communicate well.” On this play, the offense sends a receiver across the formation, so the safeties ‘rock n’ roll’, which just means Dugger now is responsible for the #3 receiver in man coverage with his teammate rolling over the top.
On the snap, the #3 receiver, who is in motion, runs a bubble route with the #2 receiver running a slant. Dugger processes it, quickly calls for a switch, otherwise known as a ‘banjo’ call, and then lights up the receiver.
Dugger’s ability to think on his feet quickly allows him to minimize a quick pass that was meant to confuse the defense and likely would have turned into an explosive play if he doesn’t make the tackle.
His pattern-matching skills, experience, and raw athleticism will carry him for the better part of his early career as he adjusts to the talent jump, especially when projecting him into the Bills’ defensive scheme. He commonly executed coverages the Bills use, such as this ‘stab and combo’ coverage call vs. trips bunch. The point defender has the receiver over him in man-to-man, and Dugger and his teammate are pattern matching the other two receivers.
Dugger is responsible for the first in-breaking route. He lets the combination unfold and takes that receiver away as an option, so the QB is forced to pull it down.
Dugger is a day-two target, in my opinion, and given his background, size, and athleticism, a guy that the Bills could find a role for in the short term and a starting spot in the long term if they so choose. He could easily fill the big nickel role when needed and learn the nuances of the safety position behind Poyer, all while balling out on special teams. Yeah, he does that, too. He was on just about every special teams unit at Lenoir-Rhyne and made his presence known on every rep, especially as a returner.
— #GOBEARS (@BearsSports) October 5, 2019
I was told that the Bills visited the Bears’ campus on at least five occasions, the most of any team, and that the personnel weren’t just scouts, which confirms what Fairburn wrote. The visits weren’t just to attend a game, either. There were instances when the Bills’ personnel watched practices during the week. The organization’s interest in Dugger is real, and why wouldn’t it be? He produced like he should in Division II, finishing his career with 237 career tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions, 36 pass breakups, and six punt returns for touchdowns. “I don’t believe my legacy will have anything to do with my numbers,” Dugger told Pro Football Ready, “I think it’ll revolve around my pursuit to keep getting better and wanting to be the best version of me, despite the changes that were made around me.” That’s the growth mindset the Bills have seen and love.