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Patriots Bill Belichick Praises ‘Phenomenal’ Vikings WR Justin Jefferson

New England also selected a standout in the 2020 NFL Draft in safety Kyle Dugger.

FOXBORO — The New England Patriots are well aware of the prowess of Minnesota Vikings star wide receiver Justin Jefferson.

Entering the 2020 NFL Draft, Jefferson was one of the top receiving prospects in the nation. The LSU product was almost universally projected to be taken in the top 25.

The Patriots owned the 23rd selection … and Jefferson was within their line of sight.

Much to New England’s chagrin, the talented wideout went No. 22 to the Vikings, just one selection before the Patriots were set to be on the clock. In the immediate aftermath of Minnesota’s choice, the Pats traded their first-round selection (23 overall) to the Los Angeles Chargers in exchange for a 2020 second-round selection (37 overall) and a 2020 third-round selection (No. 71 overall).

With their newly-acquired pick No. 37, the Patriots selected Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger.

Ironically, both Jefferson and Dugger have the chance to showcase their talents to a prime time national audience, when the Pats and Vikings square off at 8:20 p.m. ET from U.S. Bank Stadium on Thanksgiving night.

While New England is certainly satisfied with Dugger’s contributions to their secondary, they are also cognizant of Jefferson’s abilities. The 23-year-old is among the NFL’s leaders in receptions (72), receiving yards (1093) and yards-per-reception (15.2). In fact, he set the 2022 NFL single-game high with 193 receiving yards (including one of the season’s most memorable catches) during the team’s Week 10 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

As such, coach Bill Belichick is not surprised by Jefferson’s success.

“He's been phenomenal,” Belichick said of Jefferson during his Tuesday meet with the media. “Of course, we haven't seen him in the NFC, but watching him a little bit in the offseason then looking at him now … yeah, he was no secret.”

Belichichk’s admiration of Jefferson is clearly understandable. The second-year receiver is a rare talent at his position, possessing the ability to be a vertical threat, as well as a short-yardage weapon in the red zone. Jefferson is also a nuanced route-runner, able to reach his target areas with ease. The Pats head coach knows that his team faces the difficult task of attempting to contain the ex-LSU Tiger on Thursday night.

“He's a really good player, he does a lot of things well,” Belichick said. “Obviously, the deep ball, tracks it, very good at getting open, separation, good with the ball in his hands, he's a hard guy to tackle and makes a lot of plays. After the catch, makes a lot of yards after the catch.

The Vikings’ two-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro wide receiver has been dealing with a toe injury, which may have played a role in being held to 33 receiving yards during Sunday’s 40-3 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys. However, Jefferson has been a full participant at practice throughout the short week of preparation. He will provide quite the challenge for New England’s stable of cornerbacks, with Jonathan Jones expected to draw the assignment in man coverage.

Still, New England’s pass defense has been among the league’s best; ranking fourth in both yards-allowed-per-game (188.3) and per-play (5.83). With Belichick’s reputation of taking away his opponent’s most potent weapon, quarterback Kirk Cousins may need to explore alternative pass catching options, including tight end T.J. Hockenson, who was acquired by the Vikings from the Detroit Lions at the Nov. 1 trade deadline.

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Enter, Kyle Dugger.

Dugger’s versatility has made him a mainstay in the Patriots defensive backfield. The third-year safety has been a force at his position when the Pats have used both big nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) defensive packages. In eight games played, Dugger has compiled 34 total tackles, three passes-defensed, one sack, one fumble recovery and one interception.

With the Patriots having shown favoritism for zone in their recent game planning, they have been quite successful when using their three-safety base in short zone. To help neutralize the middle of the field, the Pats’ defense will attempt to take Hockenson out of his rhythm by limiting the amount of soft zones and flat combinations he sees on Thursday night. With Jefferson drawing the attention from New England’s corners (high-low in zone coverage; double-team in man), Dugger will be tasked with containing Minnesota’s new tight end.

“He’s another weapon,” Belichick said of Hockenson. “He’s another good player on the field with [running back Dalvin] Cook and Jefferson. I mean, those are like two of the top players in the league and you add a guy like Hockenson … we have to be ready.”

Interestingly enough, Thursday’s game will not be the first time the Pats have seen Hockenson this season. New England’s group of safeties held him to just one catch for eight yards during their 29-0 victory over the Lions in Week 5. Dugger’s speed and physicality were essential in defending and disrupting the tight end’s routes, forcing him to go over or under the coverage. If he and the Patriots can replicate that type of performance in Week 12, they just might succeed in keeping Minnesota’s offense in check.

Regardless, New England’s 2020 Draft fate will come full circle on Thursday in Minneapolis.  

Though Jefferson and Dugger may not see a great deal of time battling each other one-on-one, this matchup between the Patriots and Vikings may be decided by which third-year standout puts on a better show on Thanksgiving night. 

What ‘might have been’ with Jefferson is a fun fantasy. 

What ‘is’ with Dugger is a  quality reality.

Follow Mike D’Abate on Twitter @mdabateNFL and Listen/Subscribe to his daily podcast: Locked On Patriots

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