Injured Van Noy not returning to Lions anytime soon
Allen Park — The Lions anointed Kyle Van Noy as a Week 1 starter after drafting him in the second round last year. After three highly productive seasons at BYU, Van Noy looked like a player who could step in immediately as the strong-side linebacker and provide a combination of pass rush punch and coverage abilities.
Yet, when Van Noy arrived in Detroit, the Lions realized he had a lot to learn after primarily playing close to the line of scrimmage in college, and with Tahir Whitehead showing considerable improvement, Van Noy didn't earn the starting job. Then, he needed core muscle surgery after the second preseason game and missed the first eight games of the season.
After a mostly unproductive second half of 2014, Van Noy underwent another surgery to fix a hip issue doctors discovered while repairing his core muscle ailment. He chose to play through the pain, but following two surgeries the past 12 months, another injury is threatening to derail Van Noy's second NFL season.
The Lions still aren't saying what injury is afflicting the second-year linebacker, but the outlook for the start of 2015 is grim.
"It's going to be a little while," coach Jim Caldwell said Tuesday. "It's not one of those injuries that's going to take a couple weeks. It's going to be a little bit."
The Lions are awaiting a second opinion on Van Noy's injury before determining the next step. For now, though, it appears surgery is unlikely.
"The first opinion did not say anything about surgery, so we'll see what happens," Caldwell said.
The few things known publicly about Van Noy's injury is that it's not related to his core muscle surgery from August 2014, which led the Lions to put him on injured reserve with designation for return to start his rookie season.
Although Caldwell said the injury is "on the opposite side" of the one last year, he said it's not related to his abdominal area.
"It's a different area, so he's got a little issue," Caldwell said.
Van Noy was the 40th overall pick last year after a stellar career at BYU as an all-around playmaker. However, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin explained that some of his slow development in the NFL is related to him learning to play as an outside linebacker with an array of duties as opposed to his hybrid defensive end role in college.
"He was a guy that never played off the ball in college, so now we're asking him to play off the ball and read inside keys and linemen and all kinds of different things, which is a lot different," Austin said. "I would say a little different, but it's a lot different. He would take incremental steps, so one day, he might not be very good in pass coverage, but then he'd come back and he'd get it and he'd be better. One day he might miss a run fit because he didn't catch the puller, but then the next day, he would come back and get it.
"So, it's just a work in progress with him and it's always going to be that in a sense until he gets up to speed."
And, as Austin noted, it will be difficult to get Van Noy up to speed while he recovers from his current injury.
"Right now, we're in a holding pattern," he said.
Losing Van Noy at the start of 2015 shouldn't hurt the Lions much.
Although he was competing with Whitehead for a starting job, Whitehead was solid last season and secured the job early in camp as Van Noy's struggles continued. Van Noy was actually the sixth linebacker overall on the depth chart, behind starters Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Whitehead as well as veterans Travis Lewis and Josh Bynes.
When Van Noy missed his first practice that included team drills Sunday, Lewis ran with the starting defense in Whitehead's place, perhaps as a way to prepare Lewis to fill in for Whitehead in case Van Noy isn't available.
Even though Van Noy has struggled with the full brunt of his duties as well as injuries, the Lions remain hopeful he can develop into the player they expected when they drafted him. Van Noy had 24 sacks and seven interceptions his last three years, and even though he hadn't played the role the Lions see for him, his versatility convinced them to trade up to pick him 40th overall.
"He got around the ball, he made plays and that's something you can't discount," Austin said. "And so we thought we can make the transition for him, and we still think so. It's just taking us a little bit more time."
The Lions could place Van Noy on the IR with the return designation again this year, which would hold him out of the first eight games, but Caldwell said it's too early to tell if that will be the decision.
"It just kind of depends on what the final prognosis is just in terms of how long it's going to take, and then we'll make the decision from there," he said.