The New England Patriots’ defense took a major step back last year after having led the league in scoring in 2019. With core contributors such as Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins leaving in free agency, and with Dont’a Hightower opting out over Coronavirus concerns, the group simply failed to field the same quality in 2020 especially at the linebacker position.
Fast forward to today and you can find a unit that has been rebuilt in the early stages of free agency. Not only is Hightower expected back after his one-year absence, the Patriots also signed Matthew Judon to bolster the edge. The latest addition, announced on Wednesday, also helps address this area of the defense: following his release from the Miami Dolphins, New England re-signed Van Noy on a reported two-year contract.
Name: Kyle Van Noy
Position: Outside linebacker/Edge defender
Opening day age: 30
Size: 6-foot-3, 250 pounds
Contract: 2 years, $13.2 million
Following a highly productive four-year career at BYU, Van Noy entered the NFL in 2014 as a second-round draft choice by the Detroit Lions. Van Noy spent two-and-a-half seasons in Detroit and appeared in 31 games for the organization, but he never quite found his footing. Head coach Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin tried to use him in a traditional 4-3 role not suited for his diverse skill set, which in turn led to him appearing timid and insecure when on the field.
This further added to the lack of trust he enjoyed from the coaching staff and contributed to the Lions’ decision to put him on the trade block. In 2016, despite being in the middle of his most successful season to that point, Van Noy and a seventh-round draft choice the following year were sent to New England for a sixth-round selection. The Lions, as it would later turn out, moved up a mere 24 spots to get rid of the linebacker — one that became a mainstay on a Patriots defense that won two Super Bowls.
Over the following three-and-a-half seasons, Van Noy played 61 combined regular season and playoff games for the Patriots and proved himself a consistent playmaker and well-respected locker room leader. His versatile skill set was a perfect match for New England’s multiple-front defense, and he registered 22 sacks as well as nine forced fumbles, four recoveries, a pair of interceptions and two touchdowns. Given his production, however, it was no surprise to see Van Noy leave New England for greener pastures last offseason.
Just one year into the four-year, $51 million contract he signed with the Dolphins, however, Van Noy was cut again — despite another productive season. This, in turn, opened the door for him to return to the Patriots.
What is his projected role in New England? When Van Noy first arrived in New England back in 2016, he was moved all over the formation to take advantage of his athleticism and instincts. That role changed a bit over the years and he was ultimately used more as a traditional outside linebacker during his final season with the club. Given the team’s issues at that spot back in 2020, him returning in that capacity would make sense to address one of the major weaknesses the New England defense had: setting a stout edge against the run.
Where does he fit on the linebacker depth chart? With Matthew Judon also added to the mix, the Patriots are projected to have a solid edge group: Van Noy and Judon are the experienced starters atop the depth chart, with youngsters Chase Winovich and Josh Uche behind them as package-specific rotational players. Furthermore, his versatility also allows Van Noy to offer depth at the off-the-ball linebacker position — another big issue for New England’s defense in 2020.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though the Patriots used him primarily as an outside linebacker in 2019, Van Noy has shown repeatedly in the past that he is also more than capable of filling the hybrid move role: he can not just play on the line of scrimmage, but also align off it as a more traditional box linebacker. Last year in Miami, for example, he played that latter role on 27.6 percent of his defensive snaps (up from 6.6 percent the during his final year in New England).
What is his special teams value? While he has plenty of kicking game snaps on his NFL résumé, Van Noy has only occasionally been used on special teams the last two seasons. His final year with the Patriots and his lone one as a Dolphin saw him enter the game’s third phase on just 13 occasions. Needless to say that his value in this area of the game can be considered to be limited.
What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? While the final breakdown including incentives and bonuses will determine his cap impact in 2021 and 2022, the initially reported $13.2 million value of Van Noy’s two-year pact makes it seem that he will not leave too big a mark on the team’s books this season. If it follows the structure of other deals traditionally handed out by the Patriots, his cap hit this year will be significantly smaller than next.
What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Despite Van Noy and Judon being added to the mix this week, the Patriots investing in linebacker depth during the draft cannot categorically be ruled out. The edge appears to be well set with the two veterans as well as Winovich, Uche and Anfernee Jennings, but the off-the-ball group would still benefit from another high-level talent to possibly groom as Dont’a Hightower’s successor.
One-sentence verdict: Bringing Kyle Van Noy adds even more positional flexibility to New England’s front seven while addressing some major issues from a year ago.
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