Back in 2016, the Patriots began reworking their linebacker core by swapping picks with the Detroit Lions for former second-round pick Kyle Van Noy.
Belichick gets credit for many of his “pick swap” moves, but the decision to send a 2017 sixth-round pick to Detroit for Van Noy and a seventh might be the best of them all.
Five days after acquiring Van Noy, Bill Belichick stunningly traded Pro Bowler Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns, and Van Noy has been an instrumental part of the defense ever since.
This season, Van Noy is the highest-graded player on the best defense in football and also leads the Patriots in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Pats linebacker leads the team with 38 quarterback pressures through 11 weeks and is on-pace for 63 total disruptions, which would shatter his previous career-high (47 in 2018).
Van Noy’s career season coincides with the Patriots moving the veteran full-time to outside linebacker, rather than playing him off the ball as a standup linebacker in the box.
The 28-year-old is now on the line of scrimmage nearly 90 percent of the time. Van Noy played the majority of his snaps as an inside linebacker in the first five years of his career.
“For me, I’m on the field, so that’s kind of all that matters. But it’s another chance to show off my versatility and try to do it at the highest level possible,” Van Noy told CLNS Media this week.
The six-year NFL vet credited his familiarity with the Patriots system for making it a smooth transition from inside linebacker to edge defender, saying, “I know the defense so well, I still know what to do at every spot.”
“The biggest part now is to focus on those techniques that are practiced and coached at that position. So, yes, it’s different than being in the box. But no, because I’ve done it here before. It’s just a matter of doing it a lot more.”
“I just feel like I’ve been playing at a high level, and I want to continue to do that. Whether people notice or not, that’s up to them. But I’m going to keep doing what I do to help the team out to win.”
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As the most productive pass rusher on the best defense in the NFL, Van Noy capitalizes on a unique blend of quickness and play strength to beat slower-footed tackles. On the play above, he hits Jets right tackle Brandon Shell with an inside move after forcing Shell to set outside at the snap, registering a QB hit while drawing a hold.
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The Pats linebacker also has terrific flexibility to contort his body and make himself “skinny” to limit the striking area for opposing offensive linemen. By shrinking surface area, opposing tackles can’t get their hands on Van Noy to slow down his outside moves.
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He’ll also go to a long arm move to turn the corner. Rushing on the right tackle here, Van Noy creates a path to the quarterback by extending his inside arm to move the blocker out of his way, and strips Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
Along with his responsibilities as a pass rusher, Van Noy’s most important job is setting the edge against the run. A Belichick must.
“It’s critical. That’s a critical part of the defense, and again, we’re fortunate we have a number of players that can do that,” Belichick said.
Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo added that the stress on setting the edge is to force running plays back into the “teeth of the defense” where others can make plays.
There are two critical aspects of setting the edge in the New England defense, and Van Noy does them both at a high level.
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First, is a literal edge set, which Van Noy does perfectly here. Fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive end Lawrence Guy force Redskins running back Chris Thompson to bounce this run to the outside, where Van Noy has outside contain. He holds up the play long enough for Hightower to chase Thompson down from behind.
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The other common type of edge setting comes when the offensive line pulls a blocker from the backside to lead through a gap along the line of scrimmage. Van Noy does an excellent job of stepping into the puller to keep Nick Chubb on the inside. Chubb runs into Lawrence Guy, the ball pops out, and Hightower returns the fumble for a touchdown.
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And then there are run plays where Van Noy makes the tackle on his own, tallying 14 run stops already this season. He plays with great technique and leverage, getting his hands inside to throw blockers off of him en route to the ball carrier.
For Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, Van Noy’s play this season speaks to his versatility and intelligence to handle multiple spots in the defense and play them all well.
“It’s not easy to see the game from off the ball, in front of the ball and outside looking in on the line. It’s kind of two different pictures, but he does a very good job of it,” Belichick said. “He’s a very instinctive player and has very good spatial awareness for when he’s outside and when, as an outside player, you end up back inside – like covering hook-zones and things like that in the passing game. So, I wouldn’t say that that’s something that we’ve taught him.”
Belichick also pointed out that Van Noy, a former BYU Cougar, is back to playing a role that resembles what he did in college, where he thrived, which led to him going 40th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
“He mainly played inside in Detroit. He played outside in college, played inside at Detroit, and then we’ve used him in both spots – maybe a little more outside this year than inside, but he can definitely do both,” the Pats head coach told me.
As Van Noy blossoms into one of the best defenders on the Patriots defense, his personality on and off the field shine as proof that Belichick doesn’t suck the fun out of football.
“Ain’t going to steal that [fun] from me,” Van Noy said. “For me, it was a no chance, a new beginning, and I got to be the real me. I’m happy. I’m happier with who I am as a person. I’m confident in my play, so that helps out a lot.”
And in classic KVN fashion, he took a shot at my fashion when I asked him who the real Kyle Van Noy is saying, “the real me is like, look at your shoes right now. We might have to step your game up a little bit.” Apparently, he isn’t a fan of a beat-up pair of Nikes.
Van Noy is also known to stand up against critics of the Patriots, mainly those that doubted them during their Super Bowl run a year ago.
“Got to,” Van Noy said of defending his team. “Who else is going to do it? You guys [the media] I’d say, the majority of the time, go to the negative instead of the positive. When it’s one-sided, that’s kind of why I started my YouTube channel. Kind of like chefs and owners of restaurants, people write articles and write five-star or four-star. They don’t ever get to say they had a bad day or it wasn’t their best that day when every other day it’s pretty damn good. I feel like every once and a while, you have to remind people that we are alright.”
“I don’t want it to feel like every time someone says something, I’m over here paying attention to it or necessarily care. I like to mess with people; it’s all fun,” he continued.
“It’s part of the business, but at the end of the day, I’m controlling what I can control. That’s how I play. So if that’s inside, it’s inside. If it’s outside, it’s outside, if it’s special teams, whatever. Whatever it takes to win, I love winning.”
Already a two-time Super Bowl champion, Van Noy is playing the best football of his career surrounded by the best defense he has ever been on, and he’s relishing playing with so much talent.
“It’s nice to have special players that play here and play with guys like Gilmore, Gilly lock, who is unreal and playing with High[tower] and Jamie [Collins]. It’s a blessing, that’s for sure, not every place has players like we have.”
“It’s awesome to have players at every position at every level. You got guys that come off the sideline like Shilique [Calhoun] or [John] Simon that could be starting at other places that play at a high level. It doesn’t really fall off. We all want to contribute, and it’s a fight to get reps, and that’s a good thing because everybody is hungry always to improve.”
The Patriots defense is rolling and is currently flirting with the NFL record held by the 2000 Baltimore Ravens for the fewest points allowed in a 16-game season.
As Van Noy said, the New England defense has talented players at all three levels, and he’s holding down a key role on the edge for the Patriots this season.
And all it took to steal him away from Detroit four seasons ago was moving down 24 picks at the end of the 2017 draft.