There are no shortage of prime candidates to be the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack, St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier are all top-15 draft selections who should make immediate impacts for their defenses.
It might seem unlikely that a second-round pick would come into the league and upstage all of them, but if there’s anyone who can do just that, it’s Detroit Lions outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Unlike Clowney, Mack, Donald and Shazier, who were all tabbed as instant first-teamers by the franchises who selected them, Van Noy has to earn a starting job. The No. 40 overall pick worked with Detroit’s second-team defense during spring workouts, behind incumbent starting strong-side linebacker Ashlee Palmer, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
Expect that to change in short order. Possessing arguably the most complete and versatile skill set of any defensive player in this year’s rookie class, Van Noy should soon make it clear that he brings more to the table than the perfectly bland, rarely noticed Palmer.
Once he gets on the field, Van Noy should prove that he is a perfect fit for the “Sam” linebacker position in Detroit’s 2014 defensive scheme. He could also end up being able to impact games in more ways than any other first-year defender in the league.
A Do-It-All Defender
That’s what Teryl Austin, the new defensive coordinator of the Lions, is going to expect the team’s strong-side linebacker to be. Van Noy can be.
In 2013, when Gunther Cunningham was calling Detroit’s defensive plays and Palmer was in the lineup, the Sam only saw the field in base defensive packages, typically against the run. Whoever mans that position this year will be expected to take on greater responsibilities, as Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com explained earlier this week.
The SAM linebacker is going to play on the line of scrimmage a lot, which is probably the most drastic change to the position. That player is going to rush the quarterback, play the run and even drop back in coverage at times.
Given those expectations, the Lions landed the perfect player for the role in Van Noy. While the rookie has all the tools to excel as a 4-3 outside linebacker in the traditional sense, he is also a skilled edge-rusher who has experience playing defensive end.
One would not say Van Noy, a 6’3”, 243-pound linebacker who runs a 4.71-second 40-yard dash, according to NFL.com, has elite measurables. That doesn’t matter much, however, because the BYU product is a fluid all-around athlete with great instincts and many skills.
In space, Van Noy has demonstrated enough range to be a sideline-to-sideline playmaker. He does a great job diagnosing plays quickly and following them with his eyes, then utilizing his accelerative ability to close on the ball.
The following example from his game versus Utah State last year shows how Van Noy (No. 3 in white) can use those talents to cascade across a formation and make a play.
Van Noy should be able to play productively and without limitations as an off-ball run defender. But it’s his ability to line up all the defensive formation, and take on multiple roles from any spot, that makes him a potential star of this year’s rookie class.
As displayed by the following screenshots from Draft Breakdown’s cut-up of his game versus Utah State, Van Noy can line up everywhere, from the edge of the line of scrimmage to being split out in slot coverage, while he can also be moved inside to play middle linebacker situationally.
As Bleacher Report’s Chris Simms explains in the video below, Van Noy is highly skilled in both coverage and pass-rush situations.
Covering tight ends downfield is no problem for Van Noy, and neither is picking up running backs who run routes out of the backfield. He changes directions without much trouble and is able to make plays on the ball.
Van Noy recorded 24 passes defensed in his BYU career, including seven interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Pass-rushing might not be Van Noy’s forte in the NFL, but it’s still another capacity in which he can be an immediate difference-maker for Detroit’s defensive front seven.
Van Noy is a natural bender who rarely wastes motion when turning the corner off the edge. He has terrific acceleration off the snap and good closing speed. Any opponent who leaves Van Noy unblocked as a pass-rusher will pay, like Georgia Tech did this past season in a two-sack game for the BYU linebacker.
To successfully pass protect against Van Noy, a blocker must think more like a point guard than a post player. The linebacker isn’t going to bulldoze any linemen back to the quarterback, especially not at the next level. However, he’s skilled at working his way through traffic by sidestepping blocks and making quick moves with his hands.
The following example from BYU’s 2013 victory versus Texas shows how Van Noy can create separation from a blocker and get to the quarterback even when he doesn’t win with his burst. On this play, Van Noy faked out Longhorns right tackle Josh Cochran by taking a step inside, then quickly swimming across his face and bouncing back outside of him to open a rush lane around the edge.
Longer, more refined blockers in the NFL will neutralize some of Van Noy’s strengths as an edge-rusher, but he should continue to be impactful as an inside blitzer. Much like when he is isolated versus a lineman on the edge, Van Noy can also use his lateral agility and repertoire of hand skills to sift through blockers from an inside position, as he did on the following play in last year’s BYU versus Virginia game.
The demonstrated diversity of Van Noy’s skill set enables him to be the chameleon of a defense. Because he can either rush or drop back into coverage from any spot in a formation, he can keep offenses guessing as to how he might impact a play.
A textbook example of that came in the following play from the BYU-Utah State game, on which Van Noy lined up as if to cover a slot receiver, but he ended up attacking off the snap and blowing up a run play in his direction for a 5-yard tackle for loss.
Projecting Van Noy’s 2014 Role with the Lions
Despite how multifaceted Van Noy’s game is, there are a couple of lingering issues with his game.
He’s a solid edge-setter in run defense, but the Lions might be best to avoid, when possible, playing him on the line of scrimmage in non-pass-rushing situations. With limited bulk and strength, Van Noy can be swallowed up and driven away from plays as a run defender.
Additionally, Van Noy needs to become much more sound in finishing plays in front of him.
He had no shortage of big-play opportunities in the backfield in his senior season but squandered many of them by whiffing on diving tackle attempts. He’s typically a solid tackler in space, but he too often looks like a Madden player bashing the square button when he has a chance at a sack or tackle for loss.
Despite the schematic change, it’s likely that at least to start out the 2014 season, Van Noy won’t see a great deal of playing time in defensive sub-packages. As Birkett wrote, Van Noy might even cede a few starts to Palmer, while returning starters DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch should continue to be mainstays of the unit.
Over time, one should expect Van Noy’s role in nickel packages to increase. He might be the Lions’ best option to line up opposite Ezekiel Ansah, who Van Noy played with at BYU and has now been reunited with in Detroit, as a pass-rusher off the edge. His blitzing and coverage skill sets could also enable him to steal some snaps from Tulloch in pass-defending situations.
If Van Noy is going to make an actual push toward end-of-season hardware, he has his work cut out for him. Not only does he have to supplant Palmer on the depth chart quickly, he also must assert himself as a playmaker and integral part of the Detroit defense right away.
One distinct benefit that Van Noy will have, however, is that the talent around him will allow the Lions to play him to his strengths.
On a defensive front seven that already includes Ansah, Levy, Tulloch, standout defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, Van Noy’s versatility will be useful but not always necessary. With all those Pro Bowl-caliber players around him, Van Noy will be freed up to do what he does best: attack the ball and make plays upon it.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.