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Kyle Van Noy was everywhere that day. The Brigham Young University Cougars found themselves down 6-3 at halftime of the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, a defensive struggle against San Diego State. That’s when star linebacker Van Noy took over. First he blocked a punt. Then, with San Diego State backed up near the goal line, he knocked the ball out of quarterback Adam Dingwell’s hands and fell on it in the end zone for the go-ahead score. After BYU added a touchdown, Van Noy forced another punt with a third-down sack. He topped off his performance by dropping into an underneath zone, snatching a pass out of the air, and returning it for a 17-yard score.

It was a remarkable performance: 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a blocked punt, an interception, and two defensive touchdowns. The breadth of the contributions really stand out: Van Noy made plays in coverage, against the run, rushing the passer, and on special teams.

That versatility made Van Noy appealing to the Detroit Lions, who traded up to get him in the second round of the 2014 draft. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin explained:

When you look at being able to pressure from different parts of your defense and not wanting to be static, you have to have some ‘backers that have the ability to rush. I think that is what he does. He gives us that ability. He can drop in coverage, he can rush. When you put him on the field you can't just say he is going to rush every time, that's not going to be him, and he gives us flexibility that way.

Things did not play out the way Austin hoped, nor the way Van Noy would have liked. The linebacker needed surgery early in his rookie year to address a core muscle injury, and struggled to carve out a defensive role when he returned. In 2015, injuries again beset Van Noy and he rarely saw the field. He totaled just 130 defensive snaps in his first two seasons in Honolulu Blue. He earned more playing time in 2016, but began losing playing time to veteran Josh Bynes. General manager Bob Quinn—who inherited Van Noy from predecessor Martin Mayhew—dealt the linebacker to the New England Patriots for just a swap of late draft picks.

Scout Nolan Nawrocki wrote that, coming out of BYU, Van Noy “projects best as a 3-4 right outside linebacker”— a position where he could bring his versatility to bear. The Lions under Austin, however, ran a pretty conventional 4-3, where Van Noy’s role was more predictable and he’d have fewer opportunities to affect the game. Per Pro Football Focus, in 206 pass defense snaps with Detroit, Van Noy only rushed the passer 42 times, 20% of the time. This usage neutered his impact as a pass rusher and left him too often in coverage downfield, where he struggled.

Enter Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who acquired Van Noy in a trade, swapping a sixth-round draft selection for Van Noy and a seventh-round pick. KVN describes the first time he met the legendary coach:

I didn’t meet him until the middle of practice. It’s punt practice, and he’s twirling his whistle like he always does, and he says “Yo! Van Noy!” and he waves me over, and he’s like, “Let me tell you something: I always get my guys. You’ve been one of my guys since you came out of college, and I’m sorry I couldn’t get you in the draft, but I got you, and I want you to be successful.”

At that point, Belichick already had a history of acquiring his “my guys” inexpensively and turning them into productive players—particularly in the versatile, 3-4 outside linebacker role that Van Noy would fill. In 2001 he signed Mike Vrabel, a former third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers who did not start a game in four years with the black-and-gold. He started 110 games for the Patriots, racked up 48 sacks in eight seasons, and made All-Pro in 2007.

Vrabel was followed by Rob Ninkovich, a 2006 fifth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints. Ninkovich suited up for just three games in New Orleans and just five across two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, and was in the process of converting to long snapper when the Patriots snatched him up. He wound up starting 101 games for the Patriots over eight seasons. At various times, he played defensive end in a 4-3, outside linebacker in a 3-4, and off-ball linebacker in a 4-3. His ability to fill these different roles year-to-year, game-to-game, and snap-to-snap gave Belichick flexibility to fill out the rest of his roster, shuffle depth as injuries hit, and throw surprising change-of-paces at opposing quarterbacks.

Van Noy settled into an early role in New England, earning starter snaps opposite Dont’a Hightower. In New England’s come-from-behind victory in Super Bowl LI, he tallied a half-sack on a stunt, looping from the right side all the way to the left to make a key third-down hit on Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The 2017 season saw his role expand further as the Patriots shifted to more of a 3-4. Where Van Noy had only rushed on 20% of his passing snaps in Detroit, the Patriots cut him loose on opposing quarterbacks 40% of the time. He rewarded them with 5.5 sacks.

Things really took off in 2018. An injury had limited Hightower to just five games the year prior; with his return to health and Van Noy’s emergence, the Patriots had two linebackers who could do almost anything on the football field. Van Noy’s pass rush percentage bumped up again, to 45%. He set a career high with 92 combined tackles, and while he only tallied 3.5 sacks in the regular season, Van Noy turned up the juice in the playoffs, with three more sacks as he added another ring to the collection.

His performance in Super Bowl LIII might not have been as flashy as the Poinsettia Bowl that put Van Noy on the map, but it did showcase his breadth of skills. On the first drive of the game, he put crossing receiver Josh Reynolds on the ground with a vicious chuck, then chased Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff out of bounds. On a later 3rd-and-2, Van Noy dropped into an underneath zone, harassing three different crossing receivers, then flew in on Goff, who had escaped the pocket, and brought him down for a sack. He helped set the tone for the 13-3 victory, one of the most dominant defensive performances in Super Bowl history.

Those plays show why Van Noy was one of Belichick’s “my guys”; not only did he show versatility snap-to-snap, but even within the play he was able to execute multiple assignments that demonstrated diverse skill sets. Said Belichick of Van Noy’s career arc:

Kyle’s done a good job for us. He fits well into our scheme. The scheme that he was in before I think was maybe not as good of a fit for him, similar to when we got [Rosevelt] Colvin from the Bears. Sometimes, some players just fit into one situation and one scheme better than another.

Van Noy isn’t a star. He’s topped out at 6.5 sacks in a season, never made a Pro Bowl, and never earned All-Pro consideration. But he averaged under $4M per season in five seasons in New England, topping out at $7M, which made him a bargain at edge rusher, one of the game’s most expensive positions. He is not one of the most important Patriots for their dynasty. But he does epitomize what they value: players who fill multiple roles, players who do dirty work, and players who don’t cost a lot of money. Filling in around their star players with solid, versatile contributors like Van Noy lets the Patriots game plan week-to-week and adjust strategies mid-game, knowing they have multiple options for attacking or defending whatever the opponent is throwing at them.

Van Noy also epitomizes New England’s approach to fill the roster with middle-class players at middle-class (or lower) prices. They’ve rarely invested heavily at “premium” positions like edge rusher, even trading Chandler Jones (the only edge rusher they’ve drafted in the first round) right before he got expensive. They’re more likely to pay rates at the top of a positional market at “non-premium” positions like safety, off-ball linebacker, tight end, and guard—or even special teams—than the heftier price tags at edge rusher or wide receiver. They’d rather have depth and quality throughout, rather than a handful of stars and a bunch of question marks. To New England, Van Noy might have been worth more than double what they paid him.

This roster-building strategy can have drawbacks. The Patriots tend to be slower than other teams, particularly on defense, and don’t always match up well to top athletes. When teams match their game-planning acumen with superior athletes, as the Philadelphia Eagles did in Super Bowl LII, the results can be ugly. Over time, however, the success New England has had with this approach speaks for itself—six Super Bowl championships over a two-decade run.

Inflexible visions will become stagnant as the years wear on, so the Patriots are constantly adjusting. They have gone from a run-heavy offense early in the dynasty, with running backs Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon shouldering the load for an inexperienced Tom Brady, to a lethal downfield attack with Randy Moss, to a two-tight-end personnel scheme with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to the balanced squads in the latter Brady years. On defense, they’ve moved from primarily a 3-4 zone-based defense to mainly a 4-3 man-to-man defense, and back. But all along, they’ve kept their preference for versatile, smart players they can game plan with, and for building out a deep roster of solid players, with few stars but few obvious weaknesses either.

Adaptability sits at the top of the pyramid of team-building as the element that leads to enduring success. New England has sustained competitiveness better than any other franchise, so it is fitting this case study revolves around one of its players. Some of the Patriots dynasty was built on fortunate timing, pairing a young Brady with Belichick still fairly early into his head coaching career. But the willingness to shift gears plays a huge role in the dynasty’s endurance.

This adaptability was built into the Patriots system from the beginning. Belichick game-plans week-to-week, running the ball one game and spreading the field with five receivers the next, or double-teaming the tight end one week and running corner blitzes the next. That would seem to suggest that the Patriots don’t have a clear vision, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their vision is to build an “game plan” offense and defense that can be deployed in different ways week to week.

That vision demands players that are smart, coachable, and versatile. While the Patriots, like all teams, must make use of players with specialized skill sets, they get tremendous value from players like Van Noy, who may not excel in any one area, but can do enough things well that they allow the specialists to do what they do and enable the coaching staff to game plan, knowing they can execute a variety of assignments. Van Noy and players like him, while not stars, are in a lot of ways the backbone of the adaptability that helped the Patriots compete for two decades.