Patriots' Kyle Van Noy eyes free agency with 'adapt or die' mindset

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- So much of the NFL free-agency outlook for the New England Patriots has centered on quarterback Tom Brady, whose rise from sixth-round draft choice to iconic figure in the organization is well-documented.

Understandably so.

But one should not overlook several of the team's other free-agents-to-be, including a player who similarly is tied to a sixth-round pick, albeit in a different form.

"Getting traded for a sixth-round pick," linebacker Kyle Van Noy said, "I will forever have a chip on my shoulder."

Van Noy, who is to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his six-year NFL career, delivered those words earlier this week as he drove through the mountains of Topanga Canyon following a California-based training session.

This has been Van Noy's recent routine as he prepares for what is likely to be the biggest payday of his life. He usually takes the highway to his morning workout, then upon his return home, it's a different route -- through the mountains before ending on Malibu beach. It soothes his mind.

There's been a lot to think about.

"I'm excited for the future," said Van Noy, who turns 29 on March 26. "I'm in my prime years of football. I know everyone's prime is different, but I feel like I'm still learning a lot of football, I still have a lot of game left. I didn't play that much my first two years. I played a lot on special teams, but I didn't get much [other] action. I feel like I have a lot of juice left."

Van Noy gave the Patriots plenty of juice the past three and a half seasons. When New England acquired him and a seventh-round pick from the Detroit Lions in exchange for a sixth-round pick on Oct. 26, 2016, it represented one of the best trades of coach Bill Belichick's 20-year tenure.

Van Noy wasn't a fit in the Lions' 4-3 defense at the time, but in New England, he began to thrive -- with versatility to play on the end of the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker, but also as an off-the-line linebacker with speed to chase and cover. The dynamic pass-rush skills that helped produce 26 sacks at Brigham Young also came to the forefront, as evidenced by his 15.5 sacks over the past three seasons.

For a Patriots defense that is defined by multiplicity and ever-evolving game plans, Van Noy's Swiss army knife skillset was ideal. Not to mention his durability (missing four regular-season games) and clutch play (10 playoff games, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles).

Now comes the looming question: Does Van Noy stick around with the Patriots, or find the grass (and paycheck) is greener elsewhere?

"There's so many unknowns in our business, where it's either 'adapt or die.' That's kind of the mentality I've grown to have. I'm just going to continue to work on my game and be in the best shape possible, and whatever happens, happens," he said of the current uncertainty. "I know the man upstairs is looking out and I feel like I've worked really hard to put myself in a position where I believe people will notice and teams will come knocking."

If the past is any indication, the Patriots will allow Van Noy to test the free-agent market while keeping an open dialogue with him throughout the free-agent process. That has been consistent with the team's approach, as there might be some more general contract discussions with free agents starting at this week's NFL combine, but things usually don't heat up until mid-March.

Van Noy, who entered the NFL as a 2014 second-round pick of the Lions, could have been a free agent after the 2017 season. But he agreed to a two-year, $11.5 million extension at the start of that year, a decision he said he doesn't regret.

As for what top players at his position, such as Baltimore's Matthew Judon, might command on the open market this year, the franchise-tag figure for one year is projected to be about $16 million. When the Packers signed Za'Darius Smith as a free agent last offseason, the deal averaged $16.5 million per season.

If Van Noy's market ascends to that level, it would be hard to imagine he comes back to New England, where there isn't overflowing salary-cap space (about $29 million) and Brady's status is still to be sorted out.

However it unfolds, Van Noy is appreciative of his time with the franchise.

"I was so not happy where I was earlier in my career," he said. "Now I'm so happy with who I am as a person, comfortable. I know what I want. I was telling my wife the other day, 'I still am hungry.' There's still work to be done."

That had Van Noy reflecting on his NFL journey and points of pride along the way.

"The way my career started, dealing with so much B.S., and injuries, just so much stuff thrown at me. Then getting traded for a sixth-round pick, making the most of my opportunity when I got it, then proving year-in and year-out that I'm a guy you want to have on your team," he said.

"I may not have the star [power] or whatever people say it is. I might not have the [measurables] -- the biggest or smallest dude -- but what I am proud about is if you put a football on the field, you know who is going to show up every single game, all game. You can count on me as a teammate. If you talk to my teammates, they could say the same thing and that's what I think I'm most proud about.

"And then, obviously, the off-the-field stuff I'm proud about as well. My [charitable] foundation, continuing the growth and all that. I don't think I was like that when I was younger. I think I took things not necessarily for granted, but I didn't soak it up ... So me soaking up information from different players, soaking up going to a Super Bowl and winning, soaking up going and losing. That lesson will forever be within me."