Three years ago, Kyle Van Noy’s career appeared to be at a crossroads. A former second-round draft pick by the Detroit Lions, he failed to live up to the natural expectations coming with his draft status. Van Noy had appeared in 23 games over his first two seasons in the NFL, but his impact on the Lions was minimal: he had registered only thirteen tackles and a single sack, while playing just 6% of snaps on Detroit’s defensive snaps.
Van Noy simply could not earn the trust of head coach Jim Caldwell and a defensive staff led by coordinator Teryl Austin. As a result, he also was unable to carve out a regular role on the team’s defense — the first time in his career such a thing had happened, as he pointed out earlier this offseason. “I’ve never had to struggle necessarily with athletics: I’ve been the best at whatever sport I played,” the 28-year-old said.
At Robert McQueen High School in Reno, Van Noy was named All-Region at defensive end and wide receiver and played a big role in helping his team go undefeated all the way to a state title during his junior year. He also lettered in basketball, baseball, and track before deciding to stick with football in college. Playing at Brigham Young, it was more of the same: Van Noy was a standout performer which put him on the Lions’ radar in the first place.
With the team that drafted him 40th overall in 2014, however, he struggled. Detroit tried to use him in a traditional 4-3 role not suited for the diverse skill set he displayed in college: he was so successful at Brigham Young because he was moved all over the formation. The Lions, however, were far more conservative in their usage of Van Noy and as a result he appeared timid and insecure when on the field.
“There are a lot of times when you go to a situation where you’re labeled a bust or things weren’t working out, just wasn’t clicking, you start to question your athletic ability and just life in general. Am I doing everything right?” recalled Van Noy. “I think to stay positive and keep your family and your friends close that are always encouraging you, and just try to grind through it... that’s what I tried to do.”
The 2016 season changed Van Noy’s career and life forever. While he was little more than a backup player heading into his third year with Detroit, he was suddenly given regular playing time: he appeared in all seven of the Lions’ games to open the season and was on the field for almost two-thirds of the team’s snaps. And then, on October 25, the team pulled the plug on its former day two draft investment.
Detroit decided to move on from Van Noy halfway through his third season with the club and traded him and a seventh-round draft choice the following year to the New England Patriots for a sixth-round selection. The Lions, as it would later turn out, moved up 24 spots to get rid of the linebacker — one that is now a mainstay on the Patriots’ defense and has earned two Super Bowl rings since joining the club.
This was the best thing that could have happened to Van Noy, but he acknowledges that his time in Detroit still contributed to making him the player he has become. “It made me grateful. It changed my mindset,” he said. “I got to see how other people were treated versus me, and I just wanted to be treated with respect — and I try to give everybody respect. And during those times I learned a lot, that’s for sure.”
“To have the struggles I did in Detroit... I learned a lot. I learned a lot of good things and bad things and how to deal with it,” continued Van Noy, who has appeared in a combined forty-five games — nine of which in the postseason — since being traded to the Patriots in the middle of 2016. “I was able to put things together here and have teammates and coaches that trust me, and do the best of my ability to play.”
For Van Noy, the cultural differences in New England soon manifested themselves in the form of playing time. This was certainly a change when compared to his two-and-a-half seasons in the NFC North. “I went from a place where I could barely get on the field — coaches didn’t really trust me — to here,” said the linebacker about his arrival in New England. “I was just thrown onto the field and the way I played built [the coaches’] trust.”
Why things worked out with the Patriots as opposed to the Lions is no secret to Van Noy: Bill Belichick and his assistant coaches knew how to use him. The versatile defender was miscast in Detroit, especially during his first two seasons. New England, on the other hand, was not afraid to put him in various roles and situations to take advantage of his athletic skill set. Safe to say, he thrived in this setting.
“Everyone’s different, they just have a plan for everyone,” Van Noy said about the Patriots’ approach to player evaluation and development. “[Matthew] Slater had a different plan than I did, [Devin] McCourty had a different plan than Shaq Mason. Everyone has a different plan, but they get one thing across: they’re holding everyone to the same standard. Whatever your plan is you better do it to the best of your ability.”
Van Noy has been doing that since arriving in New England, but his time in Detroit is still not forgotten as he pointed out: “Those low times... I’ll never take these times for granted.”