Van Noy: The Missing Link

The Los Angeles Chargers surprised their players, fans and the NFL on Thursday by signing two-time Super Bowl champion Kyle Van Noy to a one-year deal. His fourth team as a pro, Van Noy joins the Chargers for his ninth NFL season.

Van Noy's arrival means the Chargers enter training camp with quality depth at every major defensive position. Van Noy is an enormous asset at linebacker--a role which was crucially undermanned for the Chargers. He brings energy, toughness and reliability when on the field. He has a nose for the football and tends to be involved in big plays, including forcing turnovers.

Kyle Van Noy sacks Tua Tagovailoa (Photo: Winslow Townson | AP Photo)

Van Noy is not without flaws: he's only started a full 16 game NFL season once. That said, he's never sat out a full season as a pro. He's not exceptional at any key stat for his position, but is very good in almost everything he's asked to do. He doesn't get a lot of sacks, despite the photos you see in this article.

What Van Noy does is generate chaos and get to the ball. He is in on nearly every tackle, and is adept at batting down passes and recovering fumbles. He scored many defensive touchdowns during his time as a New England Patriot, and ought to be in a position to score a few more as long as Joey Bosa remains effective at stripping the ball.

Kyle Van Noy is a veteran, and has seen a lot of snaps. Van Noy isn't huge for his position, and is at the stage where he should start slowing down with each season.

What is Van Noy's upside potential at this point in his career? Let's compare some key facts about him, his career to this point, and compare it to some notable veteran linebackers the Chargers acquired in the past:

KVN creating the conditions for Philip Rivers final campaign (Photo: Steve Senne | AP Photo)

The Facts of Noy

Some key facts about Kyle Van Noy at the time of his signing in May of 2022:

  1. 31 years of age.

  2. 6'3" and 250 pounds--about the same weight, and an inch taller than Uchenna Nwosu.

  3. 2nd round selection of the 2014 NFL Draft; the sixth linebacker chosen (Khalil Mack was the first). DE Jadeveon Clowney was the first overall pick that year; Jason Verrett was the Chargers' first-round selection.

  4. Played 3 seasons with the Jim Caldwell-coached Detroit Lions before being traded to the New England Patriots for 3 tickets to an off-Broadway showing of "Fiddler on the Roof" and a bag of Funyuns.

  5. Suffered a muscle core injury in his rookie season--the kind of injury that can easily be career-ending (see the hand-wringing surrounding Portland Trailblazer Damian Lillard's struggles with a similar injury to see how dire it can be). Van Noy had surgery and completely (mysteriously?) recovered.

  6. Was directly responsible for losing Super Bowl LII to the Philadelphia Eagles. Van Noy, in at middle linebacker, misplayed the "Philly Special" which famously resulted in the winning touchdown for the Eagles. Starting the play several yards deep in the backfield, he ran all the way to the LOS, expecting a run up the middle. He realized his mistake quickly, but was unable to catch up to Nick Foles in the end zone before the pass was completed, ending the game. Van Noy's teammate, 2nd-year DT Adam Butler, was first to diagnose the trick play, but was too slow to make a difference. Notably, Van Noy and Butler were the only Patriot defenders to notice the trick play or attempt to stop it.

  7. Recorded four tackles in the Patriots AFC Divisional Round victory over Philip Rivers and Anthony Lynn, sealing the beloved quarterback's final chance at a signature playoff victory.

  8. Dominated the "losers of Rivers Lake" Los Angeles Rams in a 13-3 victory at Super Bowl LIII. Van Noy notched 3 tackles, a sack and a TFL in the game. His New England defense tied the NFL record for fewest points ever allowed in a Super Bowl.

  9. Sacked Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills twice in the same game in 2019. Josh Allen would go on to be a good quarterback, but not that day.

  10. Forced at least 2 fumbles in each of the past 3 seasons (2019, 2020 and 2021)

  11. In 2021, he registered an interception, a touchdown, a fumble recovery and 5 sacks.

  12. Averages 36 solo tackles per season. His best years for this stat were 2017 and 2018, where he reached 69 and 71 respectively.

  13. Gets to the quarterback: QB hits registered in his last 5 seasons were 9, 10, 15, 10, 7

  14. A pass knockdown machine: he scored 10 passes defensed in 2021.

Just Another Aging Star?

The Bolts have gambled on free agent linebackers before. Recent examples of this are Dwight Freeney and Thomas Davis, who were both top tier players before they became Chargers.

Van Noy joins the Chargers closer to his prime than Thomas Davis and Dwight Freeney were when they signed on: Davis was in his fourteenth season when he joined the Chargers (although he had only played 13, having missed a full season to injury early on); Freeney was in his twelfth season when he donned the Bolt.

In all cases, the Chargers were regarded as "one or two pieces away from contending" when those veteran LBs were signed.

The First Eight Compared

In the analysis below, we compare key stats from the first 8 NFL seasons of Dwight Freeney, Thomas Davis and Kyle Van Noy in an effort to evaluate where Van Noy stacks up against two of the best at around the same point in their respective careers.

Acknowledging the obvious fact that Freeney had a very different role than either Van Noy or Davis, the key similarity between the three men is the position played and the fact that they joined the Chargers as stars.

Thomas Davis was an elite tackler, averaging 49 solo tackles per year in his first 8 pro seasons. Freeney averaged only 29 solo tackles in his first 8 seasons, but his primary responsibility as a pass rusher left him fewer opportunities. Van Noy, by comparison, averaged only 36 solo tackles despite playing more games than Davis.

Thomas Davis with freshly broken arm in a cast celebrates his NFC Championship.

Davis played a conventional linebacker role, averaging only 1.4 sacks and 1.4 forced fumbles per year in his first 8 seasons. Van Noy has been more productive sacking the quarterback than Davis at 3.6 per season, but Davis' missed season should be considered when comparing these averages. Freeney, on the other hand, was a monster in the backfield--more akin to Joey Bosa or Khalil Mack--averaging 10.5 sacks and 4.5 forced fumbles per year in his first 8 seasons.

Van Noy has played substantially better--particularly at batting down passes--as he's gotten older. He went from only 3 passes defended in his sixth season to 6 and then 10 in his past two seasons. He has been consistently good at most major statistical categories for his position since his third season, which seemed to be his breakout year.

What Happened That Ninth?

What would be reasonable to expect from Van Noy in his ninth season?

Let‘s look at how Dwight Freeney and Thomas Davis performed at the same point in their careers. Since we're essentially trying to understand how an elite linebacker declines with age, let’s compare strengths for each player.

Dwight Freeney deliciously punks Eli Manning (Photo: Andy Lyons | Getty Images)

Freeney had double-digit sacks for most of his first 10 regular season campaigns, although underperforming in his fifth and sixth seasons. His ninth season saw a slight decline in most statistical categories, except for forced fumbles which jumped from 1 the prior season to 5. Freeney never had another season generating so many fumbles, despite much success doing it every year prior (except for that eighth season). It is possible that forcing fumbles was a point of emphasis for him in his ninth year, but he was unable to maintain it afterward.

Freeney’s quarterback sacks started to decline noticeably in his tenth season and were never the same. It is fair to s