FOXBORO, Mass. — The student is now becoming the master.
Just four years ago, Rob Ninkovich was the new guy in New England with lots to learn and plenty to prove. Now, entering his fifth season with the Patriots, Nink has become something of leader on defense, and he’s the one dishing out the advice instead of receiving it.
After two productive seasons with the Patriots in 2009 and 2010, Ninkovich emerged as a consistent contributor in 2011 with 74 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks as the Patriots marched all the way to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. His role changed in 2012, as Ninkovich moved from outside linebacker down onto the defensive line, but that didn’t hinder his production.
Ninkovich led the Patriots with eight sacks and five forced fumbles last season to go along with a defensive line-leading 58 tackles. That sort of production is exactly what Bill Belichick is looking for from the dual defensive end/linebacker. But, while becoming a leader on the stat sheet last season, Ninkovich is using this offseason to become a leader in the locker room, too.
“I think I’ve done a good amount of things around here to kind of be considered a leader right now,” Ninkovich said after OTAs at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday. “Again, I’m just doing everything I can to help the young guys out and get them acclimated to the new surroundings. It’s a whole new team for them. The guys coming out of college, it’s going to be a whole new experience for them.”
The Patriots have more than a dozen first- or second-year players on the defensive line or at linebacker in camp right now, and each could use some extra attention as they adjust to the NFL defense and the Patriot way.
Ninkovich spent a good deal of time playing alongside and tutoring rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower last season. While those guys still might need some freshening up, there are other players that could use his guidance — guys like second-year defensive end Jake Bequette and rookie linebacker Jamie Collins.
“Some of these guys haven’t done the coverage things they’ve done in the past,” Ninkovich said of young guys learning the defense. “It’s going to be process bringing everyone together and bring them together. [It's my job] being the older guy, helping Jake out, helping anyone that has questions.”
Bequette could use a lot of coaching, too, as the young and talented pass rusher was a disappointment in training camp and ended up playing in just three games as a rookie. So, Ninkovich’s presence will be important for him, but it will also be crucial to Collins’ development.
Ninkovich sees similarities between his versatility on defense and what Collins brings to the Patriots. He believes the rookie can have a big impact on the Patriots’ defense from the get-go, too, although he recognizes that, athletically at least, the two are very different breeds.
“I never played safety. So, I never had those athletic skill,” Ninkovich joked. “No, definitely, the NFL is all about the more you can do. So, running down on kickoffs and doing the special teams thing, playing a certain situation on defense, whatever your role is you’ve just got to do it and do it to the best of your abilities. So, again, I think Jamie’s future is super bright. He’s a young guy with great athletic ability, and I’m happy to have him on the team.”
Ninkovich has come a long way since playing musical teams at the start of his NFL career, and now he’s a leader in New England.
Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty may be the ones bearing the captain’s “C” on their chest, but they’re not the only leaders on this Patriots defense. Ninkovich has earned his place, and now you can count him among that group.