HOUSTON — The NFL’s trade deadline typically passes with a whimper, a series of low-visibility moves that lack the obvious impact of player movement in other sports. Among the reasons is the presumed difficulty of having players contribute meaningfully after moving from one system to another.
The Falcons, for instance, had a porous defense that had yielded 28.9 points per game through the season’s first eight games. Yet they sat on the sidelines when the NFL’s trade deadline passed on Nov. 1.
“Middle-of-the-season trades, I’m not a big fan of that. You’ll see it very rarely with me,” said Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. “I think it becomes very challenging. There’s a reason a lot of times someone is getting rid of someone. I’m not saying that you can’t have someone in one organization who doesn’t fit and in another he does, but it’s a slippery slope.
“You have to have a very smart football player coming in who’s going to be willing to learn. You have to have a coaching staff patient enough to go through the challenges and trials of trying to teach someone on the fly.”
The Falcons are far from alone in their reluctance. The Patriots, however, have taken a very different approach to upgrading their defense at the trade deadline in recent years, particularly en route to this year’s Super Bowl. While the trade sending Jamie Collins to Cleveland on Oct. 31 claimed the spotlight, that move was made possible chiefly by another less-heralded one about a week earlier, when the Patriots traded a sixth-round draft pick to Detroit for linebacker Kyle Van Noy and a seventh-round pick.
That deal continued a pattern. In 2015, New England added Akiem Hicks to its defensive line, while adding linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas in 2014 to bolster a defense that went on to win the Super Bowl. From afar, others in the league can’t help but notice.
“When they come in in the middle of the season, it is difficult. You like having them from Day One with the OTA practices, training camp, things of that nature,” said Atlanta defensive coordinator Richard Smith. “[The Patriots] do a wonderful job with their personnel, knowing what a guy can do and can’t do. They’ve done a great job [with trades].”
So how have the Patriots turned a rarely-used roster tool into a regular mechanism for midyear defensive improvement? The answer lies in a series of evaluations of both the player and team, along with a commitment by the coaching staff to offer a crash course that can help a newcomer to make an impact in relatively short order.
Identifying the need
The Patriots take stock of the overall shape of their defense at regular intervals to assess whether, as a group, they’re improving with sufficient speed to reach their late-season goals.
“There’s different markers in the season where we’re looking to make sure we’re working at a more efficient level and playing better. When it gets to those times in the year, we look at it and say, ‘Have we improved enough? How is our improvement going?’ ” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “It’s a holistic approach to say, ‘When we get to Thanksgiving are we playing at this level?’ Then we get to Christmas. . . . We’ve got to make sure we’re on the right track so that we hit our stride at the right time.”
If they don’t feel as if they’re on the right track, then personnel changes become a sensible mid-year consideration. For the most part, the Patriots will have to search among players who didn’t represent a fit in one system but who might be able to serve a role in theirs. To make that determination, the team draws upon years of assessments of potential acquisitions.
“Each individual is different — their background, their knowledge, their football IQ, what they’ve been exposed to, not just their previous [pro] experience but back to their college years in some instances can be vastly different,” said defensive line coach Brendan Daly. “The guys on our personnel staff have done a fantastic job in identifying and acquiring some of those players. . . . It’s not necessarily just the week of the acquisition there becomes interest in a player. Those guys have already done a lot of homework on the back end to identify guys that we feel like have traits we’re looking for.”
Getting past the shock
Detroit GM Bob Quinn delivered the message to Van Noy, a 2014 second-rounder, that he’d been traded.
“At the time, it was confusing. I was like, ‘What?’ ” recounted Van Noy. “I thought I was playing decent.”
The idea of going from the only team for whom he’d played to an unknown role in an unfamiliar organization likewise proved disconcerting.
“Would you be concerned?” Van Noy asked a reporter, trying to explain his predicament. “If you went to Los Angeles and had no idea who is who, you’re going by yourself, I think you’d be a little nervous, too. Of course.”
That was particularly true given that Collins’s departure to Cleveland came just days after Van Noy’s arrival.
“It’s not easy coming into a situation where they lose arguably the best player on the defense and I’m here now,” he said. “I understand that I was never going to replace Jamie Collins. You can’t replace him. He’s a great player. He’s a Pro Bowl player. It was a collective group of the linebackers getting on the same page, and buying into, ‘It’s not going to take me or just you. It’s going to take all of us.’ ”
Van Noy was prepared to do the work to do his part.
Learning a new language
The Patriots’ system is complicated, with changing roles on a week-to-week basis.
“It’s a really tough system to learn,” said defensive end Chris Long. “You have to be able to hit the curveball.”
Beyond the ability to gain comfort with the team’s schemes and concepts, there’s also something of a communication barrier for a player who switches organizations.
“There’s a lot of vernacular. It’s like learning a new language,” said Patricia. “As fast as they can do that, that’s the biggest factor [in determining a player’s role].”
On-field skills draw the Patriots to players, but there also needs to be considerable intelligence for a player to change teams — and systems — in the middle of the year while taking a crash course in the language of the team they’re joining.
“Bill isn’t going to bring in anyone who’s an idiot,” said Patrick Chung.
Van Noy suggested that his transition was helped by the fact that he played in a complex defensive system with multiple coverages in Detroit. Still, he also suggests that there were no shortcuts.
“A lot of extra meetings, that’s what I attribute a lot of the success to,” he said. “Guys kind of make fun of me a little bit because I watch so much film.”
Since the trade, Van Noy has joined rookie Elandon Roberts for extra sessions with linebackers coach Brian Flores in an effort to gain comfort in his new system.
“Every morning, Flo is like, ‘I’ve got to go meet with Van Noy. I’ve got to go meet with Van Noy,’ ” said Daly. “That’s Kyle initiating those meetings. It’s a testament to him, and probably why he’s been able to make that transition. He’s worked extremely hard at it.”
Those efforts paid off.
Forging the role
Once a player gets to a point through practice and film study where he understands the Patriots’ system, the team can start integrating him into its game plans. It’s a gradual undertaking.
“If you throw everything at him, you’re going to overwhelm him and you’re not going to get anything,” said Daly. “You identify where he can help. Is he an early-down player, is he a special teams guy first and foremost, is he a third-down player? Where does he bring a skill set that can help us initially the most, and then let’s focus on that. Let’s get that down and at least get him to where he can function in that role, and then we’ll grow from there. We’ll evolve from there. Maybe that changes and in some instances, it expands to a very big menu. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe he stays in that specific role, but he’s able to master it, if you will, and get to the point where he can help us win.”
For Van Noy, it took roughly four weeks with the Patriots — two weeks on the inactive list, with a bye week in between — for him to be deemed game ready. Yet once he did take the field, responsibility grew quickly. He played 29 of the Patriots’ 63 defensive snaps (46 percent) against the 49ers in Week 11, with his playing time growing to more than 80 percent by Week 15 against the Broncos. (By contrast, after spending the first four games as an every-down player, Collins’s role had diminished to 61 percent of defensive snaps by his final game in Week 8.)
Van Noy’s snaps have fluctuated since then with the Patriots using him primarily in passing situations, but when on the field, he’s made his share of disruptive plays — including a fumble by Eli Rogers that he forced against Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.
A part of a pattern
Van Noy was viewed as a disappointment in Detroit, unable to fulfill the expectations associated with being taken in the second round out of BYU. The linebacker suggested that he — rather than the scheme or coaches — was solely responsible for that failure, even if he noted that he felt that he was playing well this year.
That sense of disappointment in Detroit, however, has been reversed in his new home. In New England, he’s exceeded typical projections associated with a player acquired in a mid-year deal, evidence of how a scouting staff and coaching staff have worked together to go against standard practice and permit a team to upgrade through mid-year trades.
“It’s helped us this year,” said Daly. “I don’t know that it’s the case every year, but we have several examples the last couple years.”
Van Noy is one of the latest. The hesitation about a change of organizations in the middle of the season has given way to a sense of renewal and possibility.
“[The Lions] wanted to move on from me, so, it is what it is,” said Van Noy. “I’m in a better spot now. I’m in the Super Bowl.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.