FOXBORO, Mass. — About a year ago, linebacker Rob Ninkovich might have been a little uncertain about his future in the NFL.
He was waived by the Saints on the eve of training camp in 2009, a tough blow for a player who realizes there are 80 players on every roster across the league. Ninkovich knew he'd have to get lucky to find a job, work his tail off to make an impression and then hope it was good enough to stick with a team through the season.
Three days after getting dropped by New Orleans, though, Ninkovich linked up with New England and found a way to put it all together.
"Well, anytime you're released the first day of training camp by one team, you're always going to be the underdog, especially coming into a team where you've got to prove yourself and you're a little behind in the playbook," Ninkovich said. "Last year, my mentality was just to come in here and make a difference. I had to show people I can play and can do certain things that made me get on the team."
Ninkovich made his mark on special teams, and he performed well on defense during his reps with the second team in the preseason. It's the exact recipe for an underdog.
At the outset of the Patriots' 2010 training camp, Ninkovich was starting at left outside linebacker — in the spot Derrick Burgess was expected to win, opposite of Tully Banta-Cain — and it showed the progress Ninkovich has made in the last year.
"I've come a long way," said Ninkovich, who was speaking about his career as a whole, as well as on defense. "Pass drops and stuff like that, when you're not used to dropping in coverage. You can get some reps at it and get your feet in it a little bit.
"Coming into camp, I knew that I had to improve at certain things. I wanted to focus on my pass drops and just get better."
Ninkovich, a Saints fifth-round pick in 2006, has dropped back to the second unit due to the rise of rookie second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham, but the fifth-year linebacker is still happy with his progress. He's just grateful for a chance to go through a full string of offseason workouts — training sessions at Gillette Stadium, organized team activities, minicamp — and he is ready to keep the momentum going this summer.
"This year, I'm just trying to improve on what I did last year — special teams, a little bit of defense that I played — and I'm just trying to help the team the best I can," Ninkovich said. "I think my role now is just to go through training camp and improve my skills as an outside linebacker, as pass drops, stopping the run, all that stuff is together. If I can do that with these four preseason games, I'll be pretty confident, and going into the season, I'll be excited."