The Patriots 2019 season was quite the roller coaster. Expectations were high coming off yet another Super Bowl victory the previous year. Despite the number of players injured to start the year, the team had an 8-0 record in the first two months with the defense earning the nickname, “the boogeymen.” The defense raked in 25 total turnovers (three of which resulted in touchdowns), 15 forced fumbles and 47 quarterback sacks. Things were looking to be on track in the usual Patriots fashion; riding defensive prowess straight to the Super Bowl once again.
Most would look at their end-of-season record and see it as quite the successful year. Ending with only four losses is certainly not anything to be upset about. However, the last half of the season did not end as well as it had begun. The team lost some important games during the last eight weeks, including an unforgettable loss to the Dolphins at home. Although the year did not go as planned, the team can improve their already great defense. This 2020 team has some players that will not only do just that but will have a breakout year.
A key veteran player on which to keep an eye in 2020 would have to be J.C. Jackson. He is well known to Patriots fans, but quite the unspoken name amongst the media, especially lining up with the defensive player of the year in Stephon Gilmore. Since being signed by the Patriots in 2018 as an undrafted free agent, he has provided nothing but productive play. Jackson has only allowed a quarterback completion of 49.6%, which is slightly above Gilmore at 50%. In just his second year, he played in all 16 games racking up five total interceptions for 39 yards. He also had 36 combined tackles and 10 passes defended. His play improved from the year prior and although it may be hard to imagine he could get any better in 2020, he will.
When Jason McCourty went down with a groin injury, Jackson was the next man up and really performed well. It is completely plausible for Jackson to see more playing time because of his phenomenal play in 2019. New England’s defensive backfield is stacked with talent, but J.C. will prove why he deserves to be the number two guy behind Gilmore this season.
The Patriots defense in 2019 was a memorable one. Jackson really flew under the radar for the season but expect that to change this coming year. Many of the veteran players who made up this remarkable defense have departed this offseason. But this leaves a big opening for Jackson to have his name discussed right along with other top corners in the league. His versatility and development are traits that should not be overlooked.
With the 2020 draft now in the rearview mirror, it is easier to focus on the players the team signed. The most exciting name to be drafted by the Pats would have to be the safety from Lenoir-Rhyne University, Kyle Dugger. Despite the criticism for coming from a D-II school, Dugger is exactly the type of player Belichick loves. If there was any concern about the “lack of competitiveness” from playing for a D-II school, it is worth mentioning that Kyle was the only D-II player invited to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. He also won the D-II defensive player of the year award.
Interestingly, we have seen quite the success with former D-II players coached by Belichick in previous seasons. Remember Danny Woodhead from Chadron State and Malcolm Butler from the University of West Alabama? The best part is Kyle Dugger will be even better than those names.
Being listed as a safety is a bit deceiving for the skillset in which Dugger possesses. As a return specialist at his school, he set the record with 929 punt returns with 6 of those returned for touchdowns. With this being a weak spot for the 2019 Patriots, Dugger can be a top player for special teams this year. Belichick loves plugging players into multiple positions and Kyle’s versatility can do that. Knowing now Patrick Chung will be opting out of the season, Dugger could see a bigger role than previously anticipated. He has big shoes to fill, but his aggressiveness and determination will be key in Chung’s absence. He can come up huge in coverage, help with tackling in the run game (which was also a sore spot last season) and return for touchdowns. What can’t he bring to this team?
The Patriots defense will continue being a hot topic of discussion. With a handful of veteran players gone this season, the younger guys have the chance to step up and prove the doubters wrong. J.C. Jackson and Kyle Dugger can really provide the type of production the Patriots coaches, and even fans, love. Keep your eyes peeled on these two this year as they could both be big stars in the making.
–Sara Marshall is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow her on Twitter @sarmarxo