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Kyle Van Noy is the heir to Rob Ninkovich and Mike Vrabel

According to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy has been an unlikely hero for the resurgent New England Patriots defense in 2017. Van Noy replaced Jamie Collins halfway through the 2016 season when the latter was traded to the Cleveland Browns, but only had a rotational role in the defense.

This year, Van Noy has started next to a revolving door of talent. Dont’a Hightower was in and out and in and out of the line-up due to injuries, allowing Elandon Roberts and David Harris and Marquis Flowers and Cassius Marsh and Trevor Reilly to play at various points this year.

But Van Noy is the only constant at linebacker in the Patriots league-leading defense since week 5 and he deserves a lion’s share of the credit for the defensive turnaround.

“Kyle’s a smart guy and it seems like he kind of enjoys [...] doing something maybe a little bit different [every] week,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s a good communicator, so he’s good at getting other people around him coordinated or in the right spot. Or, if we need to make a call, he’ll make the call. He’s decisive and will make it with good judgement but also make it decisively so everybody has confidence in it when we go out there and execute it.

“So, he does a good job of that and that’s one of the maybe advantages to having him in different positions and he understands. Because he’s played other spots, he understands what that person needs to know or maybe what the stress is on – if he’s a defensive end, he knows what the stress is on the inside linebacker and vice versa and so forth. That probably helps him with that process.”

Van Noy has moved all around the New England defense, playing all the linebacker positions in both the even and odd fronts and on the end of the defensive line in pass rush situations. He was at his best in college on the line of scrimmage and his experience in various roles in New England’s defensive front seven have only served to make him a more well-rounded defender.

“I think we’ve had enough experience with Kyle to know the things he does well,” Belichick said. “We try to put him in those situations. He does a lot of things well. It’s not just one thing, but we try to put him in those situations the best we can.”

The Patriots use Van Noy to both contain and rush the quarterback; he stops the run on the edge and on the inside; and he even drops back into coverage of running backs in the flat. New England would prefer him to go after the quarterback, which is why he’s playing more on the edge and less as a coverage linebacker, and Belichick is making sure Van Noy is in a position to succeed.

When asked about comparing Van Noy’s versatility to that of Rob Ninkovich or Mike Vrabel, Belichick replied, “I think that’s fair.”

“Everybody doesn’t have to be able to do 11 different things,” Belichick continued. “It’s good to have guys that can do one thing really well. That’s great. But, somewhere along the line, with the variety of offenses that we see and different formations, from big formations to spread formations to sometimes there are no backs in the game, sometimes there are no tight ends in the game, sometimes there could be two or three of either – again, there’s a lot of different variables, so for somebody to be able to have some versatility to help us handle those multiple situations, that’s a lot easier than having to send other guys on and off the field and try to get them matched up and so forth if you can just move one or two players around to do that.

“So, guys like Kyle and Pat Chung, Devin [McCourty], guys that give us linebacker to safety, linebacker to defensive end – those kind of, I would say, comparable spots, depending on what we’re facing, there’s a lot of value to that. But, like I said, we don’t need 11 people that have to be able to do that. If we have a guy that can two-gap and control the blocker on the line of scrimmage, that’s great. We don’t need him to adjust to 0-1 personnel.”

Hightower originally played that role at the start of the season and there was some belief that Shea McClellin could provide the same versatility, but both are out with injuries, leaving Van Noy as the only one able to pick up the torch.

Van Noy’s flexibility to move on and off the line is incredibly important for the Patriots defense where they require a few players to wear multiple hats. Not only does Van Noy move on and off the line, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers can move from 4-3 defensive end to the interior in the 5-man front, Patrick Chung moves from safety to linebacker and cornerback, and Devin McCourty moves from safety to linebacker at times, too.

This versatility allows the Patriots defense to cover multiple formations with the same personnel and Van Noy’s rise as a reliable member of the New England defensive front seven is a huge reason for their recent success.