The New England Patriots could have picked Jalen Hurts to be their next franchise quarterback following Tom Brady's departure in 2020. The dual-threat QB was available when the Patriots were on the clock with the 37th overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Instead, in vintage Bill Belichick fashion, the Patriots head coach threw a curveball. Rather than addressing the giant question mark at the QB position, or drafting one of the top pass-catchers to help whoever ended up under center, Belichick selected safety Kyle Dugger out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University.
It was a controversial move. Brady's exit left the Patriots with Jarrett Stidham as their No. 1 QB until Cam Newton's arrival later that summer, and the safety position was far down the list of New England's needs heading into the draft. And a DII safety to top it off? The befuddled reactions on social media said it all.
Our Tom E. Curran posted a poll shortly after the pick to gauge Pats fans' opinions, and they weren't favorable. A whopping 32 percent of voters "loathed" the Dugger selection. Another 29.7 percent of respondents voted that they "disliked" it.
Three years later, we'd bet that most of those voters have changed their tune. Dugger has evolved into one of the Patriots' best defensive players. But given how Hurts has developed into arguably a top-five quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, should Belichick regret his decision?
Let's take a closer look at both players before they face off in the regular-season opener on Sept. 10.
It quickly became clear during the 2020 season that Dugger was much more than an outside-the-box DII pick. He immediately made himself useful with his versatility, switching between safety and linebacker and occasionally lining up in the slot or on the perimeter like a cornerback. Sure, there was an adjustment period, but overall he impressed as a rookie and showed flashes of Pro Bowl potential.
Dugger took a significant step forward in his development in 2021. In fact, he was one of the Patriots' most reliable defenders. The hard-hitting defensive back amassed 92 tackles (five for loss), five pass breakups, four interceptions, and a fumble recovery in 15 games (13 starts).
As encouraging as his first two seasons were, 2022 was Dugger's breakout campaign. The 27-year-old was named the Patriots' "most underrated player" by Pro Football Focus after totaling 78 tackles (five for loss), eight pass breakups, three interceptions, one sack, and one forced fumble in 15 games. He led the NFL with three defensive touchdowns (two INTs, one fumble recovery).
Dugger's steady improvement is great news for a Patriots secondary that will move forward without longtime captain Devin McCourty, who retired in the offseason. Dugger's hybrid role indicates he probably won't serve as a direct McCourty replacement, but he'll be a key piece of New England's 2023 defense nonetheless.
In the final year of his rookie contract, Dugger has a chance to go from one of the league's most underappreciated defenders to a star who's recognized nationwide.
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Speaking of stars who are recognized nationwide, Hurts has come a long way since being drafted by the Eagles with the 53rd overall pick.
Despite showcasing his impressive athleticism at Alabama and Oklahoma, Hurts wasn't exactly welcomed to Philadelphia with open arms. Eagles fans were content with Carson Wentz, who was coming off a rock-solid 2019 campaign and helped Philly to a Super Bowl berth (before Nick Foles took over) in 2017. Similar to the Patriots' Dugger pick, the Eagles selecting Hurts was perplexing with so many other glaring needs on their roster.
Hurts didn't play much as a rookie in 2020, which turned out to be Wentz's final season in Philadelphia. But he took over as the starter in 2021, and although he didn't light the world on fire, he showed enough potential to give Eagles fans something to look forward to. In 15 games, Hurts completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,144 yards, 16 touchdowns, and nine INTs. His rushing numbers -- 784 yards and 10 TDs -- are what made Philly fans comfortable with committing to him as their QB of the future.
As encouraging of a season that was, few predicted that Hurts would make the giant leap he took in 2022. The 25-year-old finished second in NFL MVP voting behind Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes and led the Eagles to a Super Bowl berth with a 14-1 record in his 15 regular-season starts. In those 15 games, he completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,701 yards, 22 touchdowns, and six picks. He rushed for 760 yards and an additional 13 TDs.
Unsurprisingly, Hurts enters 2023 as an MVP favorite. If he can continue to produce at the level he did in 2022, he should have multiple MVP trophies and maybe a Lombardi or two before he hangs 'em up.
Would you rather have an elite quarterback or a Pro Bowl safety? The answer is obvious. Assuming their careers continue on their current trajectory, it would be silly to take Dugger over Hurts.
But context is key. How would current Pats quarterback Mac Jones -- Hurts' former Alabama teammate -- fare with elite weapons like A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, plus one of the league's best offensive lines? Would Hurts have been able to lead New England to a Super Bowl in spite of their subpar supporting cast? And with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge calling the shots? Doubtful.
It's fun to play the "what if" game with Hurts. He's one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the league, and Jones' lackluster sophomore campaign left Pats fans longing for the days when the QB position was the least of their concerns. But the Dugger pick should be considered a win for Belichick and Co., even if it meant missing out on a perennial MVP.
The Patriots landed a stalwart safety who appears ready to lead the defense for years to come. It's far from a guarantee that Hurts, as electrifying as he is, would have seen the same success in New England.