Allen Park — When the Lions drafted Kyle Van Noy in the second round last year, they expected him to become an instant impact player on defense, likely as the starting strong-side linebacker.
Instead, Van Noy missed the third preseason game as a rookie and later underwent surgery for a core muscle injury and missed the first eight games, opening the door for Tahir Whitehead to earn the starting gig. Now, a few days into training camp, Whitehead appears to be far ahead of Van Noy in the competition for 2015, creating uncertainty about what his role will be in Year 2.
"That'll be determined as we move along," defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Van Noy's duties. "Right now, he's competing trying to earn a starting SAM linebacker position, and we'll look at it from there. And once we get through camp and see how he performs in these preseason games, then we'll have a better determination."
So far in training camp, Van Noy has looked sluggish while primarily playing with the second-team defense. He's had a few first-team looks, but in addition to being behind the starters Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Whitehead, Travis Lewis and Josh Bynes have had more reps than Van Noy.
Van Noy's best play in training camp came Thursday when he went untouched off the left edge for a sack in 11-on-11 drills, but quarterback Matthew Stafford ran a bootleg right into Van Noy. He has yet to showcase the exemplary pass rush and chase-down skills he displayed at BYU, and although he had seven interceptions in college, he struggled with coverage drills Thursday.
"We're asking him to do some more things than he probably did at BYU pass coverage-wise," Austin said. "But he's a bright guy; he'll pick it up. It's like a lot of people who have to have some reps at it. They have to see it one time, and once he sees it, I think he'll be better."
In 2014, Whitehead showed a versatile skillset as he opened the year on the strong side then moved to the middle when Tulloch suffered a season-ending knee injury. Whitehead finished with 86 tackles, five for loss, two interceptions and five passes defensed, and entering a contract year, it's hard to see his play falling off enough for Van Noy to surpass him.
Van Noy could still have a role as a situational pass rusher, but with Whitehead taking a tight grip on the starting job, it's clear how unfortunate the timing of Van Noy's injury was last year.
"When you do get back you're far behind in terms of the amount of reps you've had and all the looks that you've seen, so it's a major setback," Austin said. "So, we're looking at it and he's had a complete offseason, he'll have a complete camp, and then we'll see where he is."