The NFL trade deadline is one week away- Tuesday, November 1st at 4:00 PM EST- but the New England Patriots are already making moves. They have acquired LB Kyle Van Noy from the Detroit Lions for a bag of peanuts.
I might be undervaluing peanuts with that statement.
The Patriots have traded their 2017 6th round pick to the Lions for Van Noy and Detroit’s 2017 7th round pick, meaning that the Patriots are getting a former second round pick with NFL-level starting experience and two years left on his rookie contract in exchange for moving down a handful of spots in the draft.
Even if Van Noy is nothing more than a special teams player, that is a good trade by the Patriots. 6th and 7th round picks rarely contribute- or even make the team- and the Patriots are getting a player that was talented enough to play 60.6% of the defensive snaps for a 4-3 Lions team.
But outside of trade value, why Van Noy? How does he fit with the Patriots? Why did the Lions make him available? Let’s take a look.
Kyle Van Noy: the draft prospect
Van Noy played outside linebacker in BYU’s 3-4 defensive front. At 6’3, 245 pounds, he was considered too light and not strong enough to play in the trenches on an every-snap basis. BYU loved dropping Van Noy into coverage in the slot and he shows great instincts in the open field.
Van Noy racked up a ridiculous 26 sacks, 62 tackles for loss, 7 interceptions, 11 passes defended, and 17 forced fumbles over his time in college. He was named 3rd team All American in his final two years.
Van Noy is not the most elite athlete, but he was versatile and instinctual enough to compensate.
Why Kyle Van Noy failed with the Lions
Van Noy was the 40th overall pick of the 2014 draft, but started his rookie season on the injured reserve due to an abdominal injury and played just 51 snaps on defense over 8 games (6.4 snaps per game). He followed that up with 80 snaps over 15 games as a sophomore (5.3 snaps per game). Van Noy was essentially a ghost, other than his considerable snaps on special teams.
The Lions asked Van Noy to play a larger role in 2016 and he started each of the first seven games of the season due to injuries. He has played 60.6% of the defensive snaps for the Lions, playing the first two downs and coming off on third down plays. Van Noy has lined up as strongside linebacker and weakside linebacker, as well as middle linebacker in 4-2 nickel fronts.
Unfortunately for the Lions, that’s not how Van Noy was at his best as a prospect. The Lions grossly misused Van Noy by asking him to fit into the traditional 4-3 defensive front, instead of modifying the defense to his skill set. Van Noy was so devastating in college because he was allowed to attack the quarterback and to crash the backfield from various angles.
The Lions were far more reserved with Van Noy, more likely to ask him to drop into coverage than to rush the quarterback. He looked tentative at the point of attack and was regularly washed out in run defense. When he was asked to play a role similar to his college function, he appeared timid and unsure of himself. Lions fans are completely justified when lamenting Van Noy’s contributions (or lack thereof).
Still, Van Noy ranked as one of the Lions top 5 defenders by Pro Football Focus in four of their first five games this season (vs Colts, vs Packers, vs Bears, vs Eagles). He has some talent to work with.
Where Kyle Van Noy fits with the Patriots
The Patriots showed a considerable amount of interest in Van Noy prior to the 2014 draft, so this could be a case of head coach Bill Belichick acquiring some of his old draft crushes on the cheap (just like LB Shea McClellin, LB Barkevious Mingo, and CB Eric Rowe).
Unlike McClellin or Mingo, Van Noy hasn’t had to suffer through multiple coaching changes; Van Noy has played under one defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, his entire time in the NFL. So while those other players could argue their struggles were linked to learning new systems or new positions, Van Noy doesn’t have those excuses.
Van Noy does fit with the Patriots though and I believe that Belichick will better utilize his skill set.
Like McClellin, Van Noy is a tweener that lacks the strength to set the edge on a consistent basis. For this reason, Van Noy should join McClellin and Rob Ninkovich (and Dont’a Hightower in a pinch) as the strongside linebackers (SAM) in the Patriots 4-3 front.
This distinction requires Van Noy to play closer to the line of scrimmage than how the Lions deploy their linebackers, which should increase Van Noy’s ability to make plays at the line of scrimmage. Unlike the Lions, where Van Noy was constantly asked to play off the line and to drop into deep zones, the Patriots ask their SAM linebackers to focus on the running back in the flat or occupying space to remove the quick slant passes.
The Patriots enjoy having the flexibility of rushing their SAM linebacker and dropping the player on the opposite side of the line into coverage. In the above image, Chris Long is to the outside of the left tackle and Belichick has often asked him to drop into coverage to give the Patriots pass rush the numbers advantage on the opposite side.
Additionally, McClellin has been battling injuries this year and, when on the field, he hasn’t been able to stand out in any real fashion. Van Noy adds another player with potential and starting experience to the Patriots deep defensive roster as the team looks for its ultimate replacement for Ninkovich, whenever he chooses to retire. Van Noy is under contract through the 2017 season so he will have plenty of time to prove that he can contribute.
These tweeners that had traditionally been 3-4 outside linebackers are now struggling to find work because the rise of nickel defenses has led teams to force them to play as inside linebackers. Players like Ninkovich, McClellin, Van Noy, and even practice squad LB Trevor Reilly are cheap, versatile players that can play linebacker and end. Belichick seems set on trying to take advantage of this possible inefficiency.
Will Van Noy become the next Akeem Ayers for the Patriots? Or will he struggle to contribute? That remains to be seen. But the New England defense is different from Detroit’s and it appears to better align with the linebacker’s skill set.
At any rate, the cost to acquire Van Noy was peanuts; the Patriots had nothing to lose and everything to gain.