Rob Ninkovich’s NFL Evolution Pushes Him to More Prominent Role With Patriots

Rob Ninkovich's NFL Evolution Pushes Him to More Prominent Role With PatriotsFOXBORO, Mass. — Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich recalled being completely overwhelmed during a basic assignment in his rookie season.

He'd be running down the field on kickoff coverage with the Saints in 2006 and wondering, to put it bluntly, how in the world he was going to tackle a returner who was more explosive and elusive than he thought he was prepared to handle.

"When I was a rookie, I can remember running down on kickoff and just completely not thinking I could ever tackle a returner because they were very explosive and fast," Ninkovich said Wednesday. "The more reps you get at it, obviously, things get a little bit easier as far as seeing things."

To add context, Ninkovich was comparing that to his learning curve with the Patriots' defense. He's been the clichéd underdog throughout his football life. The high school running back didn't receive any scholarship offers to play in college out of high school, so he played at Joliet Junior College in Illinois. 

And when Ninkovich transferred to Purdue, he alternated between tight end and defensive end from practice to practice. He didn't get a ton of reps on defense — understandably so, because he was behind Anthony Spencer and Ray Edwards on the depth chart at defensive end — until he started his last five games in place of an injured Edwards.

Ninkovich was a fifth-round pick in 2006 and had three sacks in his first preseason with the Saints, but a torn ACL derailed his rookie year. He was cut by the Saints in 2007, the Dolphins in 2008 and the Saints again in 2009.

His emergence with the Patriots has been just as improbable. Ninkovich was a long snapper with the Saints, but Bill Belichick signed him at the start of training camp in 2009, purely because the Patriots had a need at linebacker and Ninkovich was a live body who could fill out the practice field. For that, it's not too much of a stretch to consider Ninkovich the 80th man on the roster at the dawn of his New England career.

He survived his first camp, played well on special teams in 2009 and eventually earned a starting role at outside linebacker in 2010. And that, in turn, leads back to Wednesday's conversation.

Ninkovich was discussing the interception he returned for his first career touchdown Sunday against the Jets, and it came on a play that might have been the strongest of his defensive career, at least while playing linebacker. Ninkovich helped jam Jets tight end Dustin Keller at the line, and he realized linebacker Tracy White could take Keller when he got back to his feet. 

So Ninkovich set his eyes on the Jets' backfield, where he saw running back LaDainian Tomlinson sneak out on a check-down. Ninkovich said he read quarterback Mark Sanchez's eyes, so he hovered toward the middle of the line, jumped the pass and returned it for the score.

Ninkovich was asked if that was a play he could have made earlier in his career.

"Probably not two years ago," he responded. "I probably wouldn't have been able to see that. The more experience you have, and the more reps you get at coverage and different things as a linebacker, you just start to see things better. As a defensive end, you're not used to being in coverage. Playing more linebacker has helped me as a coverage linebacker."

It's all part of his evolution as a player throughout his football life, and Ninkovich has taken on more responsibilities this season, too. He's played outside linebacker in both the 3-4 and 4-3, and he has also moved up to defensive end in sub formations with four-man fronts.

Ninkovich's contributions have been impressive, and his teammates and coaches have taken notice of his growth on the field.

"We've asked him to do a lot of things, and he's done a good job," Belichick said. "He's been dependable. He's been versatile. He's a smart guy, works hard. He's a good athlete. He can do a number of different things. He can rush the passer. He can play with strength in the running game. He's a good pass defender, plays in the kicking game, long snapper — that's a pretty good résumé. He's done a good job for us."

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