Year One in the books: Patriots to continue to lean on Van Noy in Hightower's absence

Year One in the books: Patriots to continue to lean on Van Noy in Hightower's absence

FOXBORO -- Kyle Van Noy looked up at the digital clock hanging above the exit to the Patriots locker room, checking to see if it indeed had been a full year. Yes, sir. A full 365 days and three hours, as a matter of fact.

The date Oct. 25, 2016 holds special meaning for Van Noy because it was the day he was given a new start. It was the day he was traded from Detroit (along with a seventh-round draft pick) to New England for a sixth-round selection.

At the time, he was shocked. Not because it was the Patriots. They'd spent a lot of time on Van Noy in the build-up to the 2014 draft. He was shocked because he had been a starter for the Lions, yet in a league where trade-deadline deals are few and far between, he was shipped off to learn a new defense for a team with championship aspirations.

One year later, his life has changed. He owns a Super Bowl ring. He was given a two-year extension back in September to remain with the Patriots. And he's now a full-time player, who has seen more snaps than any Patriots defender not named Devin McCourty or Malcolm Butler.


"I'm blessed to be where I'm at," Van Noy told NBC Sports Boston. "It hasn't been easy by any means. But it's been rewarding, and I'm happy."

Van Noy is as important to the Patriots defense now as ever. With Dont'a Hightower out with a torn pec, communication duties in the middle of the field could fall on Van Noy's shoulders. There's also a chance that Van Noy, who has worn the green dot as the team's defensive play-caller, spends more time on the edge in Hightower's absence. It's something he's done before, and he recorded a half-sack in the Super Bowl after running a stunt as a defensive lineman.

"He's talented, and he's got the head space up there to play multiple positions," said Patriots safety Jordan Richards, who has spent time alongside Van Noy at the linebacker level this season.

"That may mean he's dropping into coverage more so in certain situations. We're asking him to play different positions . . . It's just the more you can do. And he's able to do a lot. That's huge for our defense."

The Patriots have other options at linebacker with Hightower out -- including Elandon Roberts, David Harris and Shea McClellin (who is eligible to return from injured reserve Week 10) -- but Van Noy provides the most in the way of versatility. And the sheer number of snaps he's seen since his arrival a year ago makes him perhaps the best option to serve as the quarterback in the front-seven.

One of the illustrations of Van Noy's understanding of the defense and his role in it came in Sunday's win over the Falcons. On a fourth-down play at the goal line, he dropped Taylor Gabriel five yards behind the line of scrimmage on a jet sweep, forcing a turnover on downs. It was his second tackle for a loss in the game.

"It’s a tough play because in your goal line defense when you’re trying to stop the run down there you’re almost always in some type of man coverage principles," Belichick said this week. "So, when the receiver – Gabriel – comes across in a fast motion like that it’s almost impossible for the guy who has him in man coverage to get through all of the traffic and get over the top on everything and he’s there on the other side.

"Kyle made a great play, made a very instinctive play. He recognized the motion and then saw that the defender was a little bit behind the receiver and so he moved into position to have better leverage on the play . . . Kyle’s awareness and the quickness with which he got outside with all of the traffic so that he could kind of have a clear shot to come up the field was a real heads up play on his part."

Goal line, red zone, third down . . . Van Noy's been on the field for all of it, seeing 95 percent of his team's defensive snaps. He admits it hasn't been perfect, "but I feel like I'm playing at a high level to help the team win. At the end of the day that's what I'm all about is winning. When you win, things are good."

The communication is one area that has seen a noticeable change of late for the Patriots defense. That may be due in part to Hightower spending more time in the middle in recent weeks, but Van Noy explained that it was only a matter of time.

He knows what it's like to be the new guy in the locker room -- "My mindset was to learn the defense as fast as possible and not be the person that is making mistakes," he said of his approach last season -- and he expected it to take some time for the new acquisitions on this year's club to more fully understand their responsibilities.

"I feel like it's getting better each and every week," he said. "Guys are here longer, and they know what they're doing. There's more communication, guys are starting to know their roles in different situations. Yeah, I feel like it's getting better."

Van Noy does what he can to make sure that trend continues. He has been in Hightower's ear since his arrival ("That'll never change," he said), and teammates say he is consistently asking questions in order to soak up more information. One day he could be asking how Tedy Bruschi or Junior Seau played a certain role. The next he could be turning to the secondary to get a better feel for how to handle a particular coverage.

"Definitely a high football IQ guy," Richards said. "Part of being new is he had to learn a new system, and he did that. He did a phenomenal job of that last year, doing his best to change his vocabulary and whatnot. In the past year we've asked him to do a lot and he's always accepted every role. I think he's flourishing. He's been a leader on this defense."

The respect he's earned with what he's done since last season -- not to mention what he did during training camp with Hightower out for an extended period of time -- extends to the coaching staff as well.

"We felt like going into the season that, again, Kyle is a versatile player," Belichick said. "He’s able to do a lot of things. He can really play on the end of the line. He can pass-rush. He can play in coverage. He can play middle linebacker. He can play outside linebacker. He gives us a lot of flexibility on defense. 

"Not that you want a player to have to play five or six different positions, but sometimes in your scheme or over the course of the season things can shift a little bit, but we headed into the season thinking that he would certainly have a bigger role than he had last year just because the amount of time that he’s had to familiarize himself with our system and practice it all through the spring and all through training camp. 

"Kyle has been a very durable player. He’s out there every day. He gets better, works hard every day. He’s able to do more and he wants to do more. He’s the type of player that wants more responsibility and likes the challenges of doing different things -- coverage, pass rush, playing the run, playing on the line, playing off the line. His hard work has paid off in a lot of opportunity and a lot of production in a number of different areas. The one area that stands out is, of course . . . the number of plays that he’s on the field for."

It'll be hard for Van Noy to see any more time with Hightower out, simply because there aren't many plays this season that he's missed. But the Patriots may lean on him in other ways, whether it's trying him as the do-it-all chess piece that Hightower was, or simply leaning on him as the voice of authority in the middle of the defense. 

Exactly one year and three hours after being traded, he's comfortable with whatever is asked. 

"I feel like I've started to understand what's going on more in the defense," he said. "I'm able to change things and just be looked upon more as a leader since I've been here a year. Many think I've been here my whole career since I'm able to know the defense pretty well and the ins and outs of it. It was stressful when I first got here. Big difference now."


What are the Patriots getting in Cordarrelle Patterson?

What are the Patriots getting in Cordarrelle Patterson?

The Patriots have made a trade with the Raiders to acquire receiver and special teamer Cordarrelle Patterson, according to a source. The deal, first reported by Pardon My Take, is an interesting one because it lands Patterson with the team that passed on the opportunity to draft him back in 2013. 


Bill Belichick dealt the No. 29 overall pick to the Vikings that year in exchange for four selections, including a second-rounder and a third-rounder. The second-rounder became Jamie Collins, and the third became Logan Ryan. The Patriots also took Josh Boyce with a fourth they received in the trade, and the fourth pick (a seventh) was traded to Tampa Bay in exchange for LeGarrette Blount. The Vikings took Patterson. 

Patterson's career to this point has been a mixed bag. One of the top athletes in the 2013 draft, the Tennessee product never quite panned out as a go-to No. 1 receiver. He has not missed a game in five seasons, but he has never cracked 600 offensive snaps in a single season. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder has turned himself into more of a gadget receiver as well as one of the game's best special teamers. 

Here's what the Patriots are getting in Patterson . . . 

TOP-TIER SPECIAL TEAMER: Patterson has solidified himself as one of the NFL's best kick-returners. In five seasons, he's ranked as the top returner in terms of average yards per return three times. He's never been outside of the top 10 in the league in that category. Last year he was sixth in the NFL with a 28.3 yards per return average. Patterson has also become a highly-effective gunner on punt units, a role he thrived in once he embraced it, and he has kick coverage experience. Patterson has not been a punt-returner. He has just one punt return under his belt compared to 153 kick returns. Patterson has been named a First-Team All-Pro twice for his work in the kicking game. 

INCONSISTENT RECEIVER: Patterson has never been able to take his explosiveness and translate that into consistent production offensively. He's not thought of as a precise route-runner, and he has a reputation as a "body-catcher." Yet, because he's so dynamic with the ball in his hands, offenses in Oakland and Minnesota have found ways to get the ball in his hands. He'll align in the backfield, take reverses and catch screens just to try to get him the ball in space where he can let his natural abilities take over. If he gets a crease, he can create a chunk play in a blink. 

THE COST: Patterson is in the second year of a two-year deal he signed with the Raiders last offseason. He has a base salary of $3 million and a cap hit of $3.25 million. The Patriots will be sending a fifth-rounder to the Raiders and getting a sixth-rounder back. (As an aside . . . The Patriots have used one fifth-round pick in the last six drafts. It was spent on long-snapper Joe Cardona. Why are they constantly dealing fifths away? Inside the Pylon's Dave Archibald did an interesting piece on that topic about a year and a half ago. The gist is that a) there's a significant drop-off in your chances of finding a star in the fifth compared to the fourth, and b) the talent in the fifth round, by some metrics, hasn't proven to be all that different from the sixth or seventh rounds.) 

THE FIT: Patterson is a relatively low-risk acquisition because of his cap hit (which on the Patriots slots him in between Shea McClellin and Chris Hogan) and because of the draft capital required to nab him. Trading for a player like Patterson as opposed to signing another team's free agent has the added benefit of not impacting the compensatory-pick formula. Patterson also fills a few needs. His abilities as a kick-returner will be more than suitable with last year's primary kick returner for the Patriots, Dion Lewis, out of the mix. What Patterson can do as a gunner and in kick coverage will also be useful with Johnson Bademosi now elsewhere. There's also a chance Matthew Slater plays in a different city in 2017, in which case Patterson's contributions as a gunner and in kick coverage could be critical. With Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman and Hogan all established in the Patriots offense, Patterson won't be expected to take on a heavy role in the Patriots offense. However, if he can pick up a new system, perhaps he could take on a role as a No. 4 or 5 wideout who benefits from plays designed to get him touches in space. Malcolm Mitchell, Phillip Dorsett and Kenny Britt -- now alongside Patterson -- will all be competing for time in New England's offense. Former Patriots coaching assistant Mike Lombardi seems to believe it's unlikely Patterson contributes offensively


Patriots acquire WR Cordarrelle Patterson in trade with Raiders

Patriots acquire WR Cordarrelle Patterson in trade with Raiders

The Patriots have acquired wide receiver and kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson in a trade with the Raiders, NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry confirms.

Pardon My Take, a podcast by Barstool Sports, first reported the news.

Ian Rapaport of NFL Network reports the Patriots sent a fifth-round pick to Oakland and received a Raiders' sixth-rounder along with Patterson.

More to come...