Picture this: The Patriots wake up in September with Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Kyle Van Noy all playing at the second level of their defense. Their work against the run is improved. Their ability to disguise is restored. Their communication is smooth.
Those who were there to witness it first-hand convince themselves that 2020 never happened. It was all just a bad dream.
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OK. That might be a little dramatic.
Nothing will wipe 2020 from the collective Patriots memory bank. But there's no doubt that reacquiring Van Noy -- with whom the Dolphins are about to part -- would go a long way in reinvigorating what was an uncharacteristically punchless Bill Belichick front-seven last season.
Dont'a Hightower's return, we've argued, would be the most impactful veteran addition the Patriots could make defensively this offseason. But Van Noy's, if it were to happen, would mean yet another addition who would allow others at inside and outside linebacker to more snugly fit specified roles. One of the more versatile and productive linebackers in recent Patriots history, he could help quickly turn a weakness into a strength.
The Patriots ranked last in rush DVOA, per Football Outsiders, not due to one factor. There were opt outs. There were injuries. But their linebackers, both inside and outside, were thrust under the microscope on a weekly basis as they tried to limit opposing running games.
It was ugly at times.
Hightower's presence would've gone a long way in making the Patriots more stout against opposing running games. Having a nose tackle would've helped, too. That was a position they lacked -- forcing others to try to play there out of position -- when Beau Allen ended up spending the entirety of the season on injured reserve.
But the Patriots were also just very . . . young.
In his second season, Chase Winovich saw his snap totals fluctuate wildly at times, but he still more than doubled his rookie-season snap count. That included an early-down workload that exploded.
After serving effectively as a pass-rush specialist in 2019, Winovich's snap totals against opposing run games almost quadrupled (53 to 207) last year. It was apparent at times: He was simply more comfortable trying to frustrate opposing passing games.
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More than half of Anfernee Jennings' nearly 300 snaps last season came against the run, while fellow rookie Josh Uche had a more specified role with only 22 percent of his snaps coming against the run. Undrafted second-year player Terez Hall was called up from the practice squad to play 259 snaps off the line last season, often as a hard-hitting, gap-filling run-game player.
In his third season, Ja'Whaun Bentley became a captain and a heavily-relied-upon piece in the middle of the Patriots defense. An intelligent player with an old-school build, he couldn't keep the Patriots' run defense from falling flat. Among the top-50 linebackers in the NFL when it came to 2020 playing time, he graded out as No. 37 against the run, according to Pro Football Focus.
Adding Van Noy could have the potential to help each of the younger players in the Patriots linebacker rooms to find their way.
Maybe it would mean Winovich could go back to serving in more of a third-down-specific role. Maybe the workload heaped upon Jennings could be lessened as he learns the complicated ins and outs of being a versatile linebacker in Belichick's system.
If there is a game where the Patriots want to see more of Uche on the edge, Van Noy could play off the ball and help Bentley settle into more of a specialized early-down role. If Uche is going to blitz from the middle of the field, Van Noy could take an edge.
If the team wants two veteran edge rushers on the field, they could use Van Noy and Hightower at the line simultaneously while Bentley -- or a couple of the team's lighter, quicker second-level safeties -- play off.
While Van Noy played almost exclusively off the edge when he was last with the Patriots in 2019, and while that role may suit him best, it's worth noting that he essentially split his time between being an inside linebacker and an outside linebacker in 2018 when the Patriots defense helped carry the team to a championship.
He can beat tackles off the edge. He can blitz from the second level. He'd be a seamless fit when it comes to the communication aspect of playing in Belichick's defense. And Van Noy might allow for younger Patriots linebackers to develop on a steadier trajectory.
There is plenty of upside to a reunion between the soon-to-be-30-year-old and the Patriots, no doubt. The only question is cost.
The Dolphins are reportedly trying to trade Van Noy before they release him. That might be difficult based on the leverage they've lost thanks to all the reporting -- and Van Noy's own statements -- that have let it be known that the two sides will not continue on together.
The Dolphins might rather release Van Noy than trade him to the Patriots within the division. That way he'd be able to pick his next spot, which wouldn't necessarily be New England. But if somehow the two AFC East rivals were able to strike an unlikely deal, it probably wouldn't cost the Patriots much in the swap. Again, Miami has little leverage. A Day 3 pick, perhaps? But it would cost the Patriots money.
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Van Noy is scheduled to make $12.5 million in base salary at the moment, which would make him the highest-paid player on the team for 2021 and give him the second-highest cap hit behind only Stephon Gilmore. If they traded for him, that might be something the team would try to adjust.
If Van Noy is eventually released, it's hard to peg what kind of deal he could command. Productive players are already being released by teams working to get under the cap. Of the teams with the cap space who'd view Van Noy as a fit, would there be any that are willing to give him a deal approaching the one he had in Miami? Would he be looking at something slightly less, like the two-year, $23 million deal Justin Houston signed with the Colts?
Or would it be less than that? Maybe a lower-cost one-year deal is in the offing -- one that would acknowledge the challenges of the 2021 market for veterans this offseason while also setting up Van Noy to hit free agency again in 2022 when the cap will have likely rebounded to an extent.
If that's the scenario, where Van Noy -- a veteran player with a versatile skill set who has worked in the Patriots system before, whose presence could allow younger developing players to slide into specified roles and grow more steadily -- is available at a relatively inexpensive rate because of the circumstances, it would be a no-brainer for the Patriots to try to convince him that a reunion would be best for both parties.