NFL: Combine

Defensive back Kyle Dugger speaks to the media during the 2020 NFL Combine in February. Dugger, a second-round draft pick of the Patriots, signed with the team on Wednesday.

On the NFL calendar, the draft is much like New Year’s.

The entire league stops to celebrate its future. Optimism and formal wear are in abundance. Behind the scenes of large-scale telecasts and in the comfort of private homes, glasses are raised and toasts are made.

But for NFL scouts, the calendar timing of the draft is more like President’s Day.

By the time the first round rolls around, scouts have already turned the page to next season. Every March, as they visit college campuses for various Pro Days, they keep one eye on the prospects running, lifting and leaping before them and one eye on their younger teammates. Across the country, scouts take physical measurements of underclassmen who will be draft-eligible the following year and grade their most recent tape.

Spring evaluations are meant to serve as the foundation of the draft grades these players will receive whenever they turn pro.

Through this process, the Patriots were able to discover the little-known Division II safety who on Friday became their first pick in the latest draft.

Kyle Dugger, a four-year starter at Lenoir-Rhyne University, went 37th overall in a surprising move that caused many to ask variations of the same question: “Who?”

Of course, the Pats knew Dugger. They knew him quite well, having started with his rare physical testing and incredible film.

Explained Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio early Saturday morning: “There are certain players at a lower level of competition that are earmarked this time of year during the off-season.

“He had played a couple years. He started as a junior, so he was a player that was identified. We did work on him.”

The Patriots’ work on Dugger included several visits to Hickory, N.C., where the Lenoir-Rhyne campus is located.

They sent multiple evaluators to watch Dugger destroy ball carriers and break up passes last season. His elite athleticism shone on the field and later at the NFL Combine, where he outran and out-leapt most of his fellow safeties.

In between, Dugger impressed the Pats’ staff at Senior Bowl practices. Everyone from Caserio to Bill Belichick and his assistant coaches was present to study the attending prospects, several of whom would become first- and second-round picks.

Faced with much stiffer competition, Dugger acquitted himself well.

After Dugger, the Patriots drafted another Senior Bowl attendee, Michigan linebacker Josh Uche, at 60th overall.

Though Uche attended an FBS school where he faced elite collegiate competition on a weekly basis, the Pats felt it was important to see how he performed when pitted against fellow top picks. He passed the test.

Uche did so well he eventually joined Dugger on a three-player list the Patriots made of must-have prospects at the start of the second round; one year after their athletic traits had put them on the team’s radar during the quiet start of another scouting year.

Pats’ third-round picks

LB Anfernee Jennings, Alabama (87 overall); TE Devin Asiasi, UCLA (91 overall); TE Dalton Keene, Virginia Tech (101 overall).