Playing linebacker is nothing new for the starting left defensive end, since he played strong-side linebacker in 2011 before moving down to the front four in 2012. He also stands up from time to time if the alignment calls for it in the Patriots’ hybrid defense.
“A couple years ago I was a SAM (strong-side linebacker), now I’m a defensive end, but I still do both,” Ninkovich said Tuesday on SiriusXM Radio, as transcribed by ESPN.com. “Being multiple, being able to be in different fronts — one play being a D-end, the next play being a SAM — being able to change up the way that we can, it definitely helps our defense.”
The Patriots are shallow at defensive end, but their lack of depth at linebacker heading into the summer is mind-boggling. After the starters — Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins — the Patriots have more special-teamers (Chris White, Josh Hull and Ja’Gared Davis) and undrafted rookies (Cameron Gordon, Taylor McCuller and Deontae Skinner) than legitimate options on defense. Inserting Will Smith or Michael Buchanan at defensive end is a better option than using the fourth linebacker on the Patriots’ depth chart at this point.
It would take some shuffling, but Ninkovich has proven in years past that his versatility can be stretched. Patriots coach Bill Belichick teaches his linebackers to play all three roles in a 4-3, so Hightower, Collins or Mayo can play weak-side, middle and strong-side.
The Patriots also could move to a 3-4 regular defense, with Ninkovich playing outside linebacker, if Mayo, Hightower or Collins suffer an injury next season. Ninkovich’s best role might be as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but Chandler Jones excels as a 4-3 defensive end and was too big to play outside linebacker and too small to play defensive end in 2013, which led to more looks with a four-man front.
Belichick likes sticking the best 11 players on the field for each situation, regardless of natural or best position. Players like Ninkovich, who can play multiple roles at a high level, assist Belichick in that goal.