Patriots

Kyle Van Noy on replacing Dont'a Hightower: 'Going to take a group effort'

Kyle Van Noy on replacing Dont'a Hightower: 'Going to take a group effort'

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Patriots locker room wasn’t filled with laughter and a ton of energy Thursday afternoon. Perhaps that’s in part because there were meetings going on during the media availability period. But though teammates no doubt knew Dont’a Hightower’s fate before we did, losing a player of his caliber and with his influence hurts. No one knows that better than Kyle Van Noy. The linebacker has leaned heavily on Hightower during his year in Foxboro.

“Dont’a is a special player,” said Van Noy. “He does a lot for the team. It’s going to take a group effort.”

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The Pats defense has played nearly an equal number of plays with and without Hightower this season. 228 with, according to NFL Research, 226 without. That unit - which struggled until last weekend against Atlanta - has allowed 307 more yards with the former Alabama star on the field. That’s no coincidence. Now Van Noy and company will have an even greater burden placed on their shoulders.

“As a unit, everyone has to step up and hold each other accountable and get on the same page,” said Van Noy. “There’s really no conversation needed. Everybody knows what they need to do.”

Van Noy has had more responsibility from jump this year, barely coming off the field. On defense, only Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler have played more snaps, and while the analytics crew is not all that complimentary of Van Noy’s play, either the Pats have no one better or the number crunchers don’t know what they’re looking at. 

“I guess that question reverts back to you,” said Van Noy when asked if he was comfortable with all that he’s being asked to do. “What do you think? I can only say so much.”

Van Noy is more fond of letting his play do the talking and that will be scrutinized in the coming weeks and months. Is he up for it? We’re about to find out.

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

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McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

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AP Photo

McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

Devin McCourty said immediately after Super Bowl LII that players knew Malcolm Butler's role had changed. Two weeks later, that story hasn't changed.

After falling to the Eagles, 41-33, and while making his way from his media availability period to the Patriots buses, McCourty said he and his teammates weren't surprised that Butler's workload had been scaled back for the final game of the season. 

His explanation made it difficult to understand, though, why other players were so surprised to see that Butler wasn't a part of the defensive game plan. The corner who started in Butler's place, Eric Rowe, said he didn't know until right before kickoff that he'd be on the field instead of Butler. 

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McCourty reiterated his point when asked about the situation during a recent event to benefit Tackle Sickle Cell, founded by McCourty and his twin brother Jason to help families dealing with sickle cell disease.

"As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth," McCourty told NJ Advance Media when asked if Butler's benching was disciplinary in nature. "We all knew he wasn't starting all week. That wasn't a secret to the guys on the team.

"I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It's just not true. As far as I know -- and I was there all week -- not one time did anything come up."

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Butler took to social media in the days following the loss to dispel any rumors that he was being punished by Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff. He pointed out that he had not attended any concerts during the week, as had been theorized online, and that he spent his free time with family. 

"It sucked for him," McCourty said. "He put a lot of time and effort in. However it falls, the last thing you want to do is not play a snap. To me, the worst part was to see all that (anonymous) stuff come out after."

McCourty called Butler a "great teammte" and appreciated the way Butler grew as a player during his four years in New England. 

"It's been great to watch him develop," McCourty said of Butler. "To watch him, maybe, be late one day his rookie year, and say, 'Hey Malc, you can't do that.' And then becoming a guy you can count on who is very dependable.

"If he decides it's hard to come back after that, anywhere he goes, the guy is a great football player and probably one of the most competitive people I've been around. With all my guys, we're teammates and friends for life."

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