The New England Patriots treated their offseason like they knew Rob Ninkovich would retire soon. But maybe not this soon.
Ninkovich reportedly will announce his retirement Sunday afternoon in a news conference scheduled at Gillette Stadium.
Ninkovich’s reported retirement leaves the Patriots shallow at defensive end, where they’re left with Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Geneo Grissom and rookies Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise and Caleb Kidder. The Patriots are left so shallow that Grissom — who was waived out of training camp last summer, went unclaimed and later was signed off the practice squad to play special teams — has been lining up with first-teamers, rotating with Ealy, in training camp.
That should change once Rivers and Wise get up to speed. But what if they don’t? The Patriots used a four-man rotation at defensive end last season with Flowers, Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long. If they deployed a similar rotation this season, it either would include two rookies or a player who was used defensively on just 11 snaps last season.
The Patriots potentially could replace Ninkovich with one of their linebackers, however. Shea McClellin — though undersized at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds versus Ninkovich, who’s 6-foot-2, 260 pounds — has the potential to play a similar role and is the best fit.
Ninkovich was used as a pass rusher on nearly 70 percent of his passing snaps in 2016, while McClellin was used as a pass rusher on 46 percent of snaps. McClellin played more defensive end as a member of the Chicago Bears in his first four seasons in the NFL.
The Patriots also could use Kyle Van Noy on the edge more in 2017. Van Noy primarily was used in coverage on passing snaps after coming over from the Detroit Lions in a trade, but he’s a better pure pass rusher than McClellin. The Patriots are crowded at linebacker with McClellin, Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, David Harris, Elandon Roberts, Jonathan Freeny, Brandon King, Harvey Langi, Brooks Ellis and Trevor Bates. They could afford to borrow from that position to fill in depth at defensive end.
The Patriots also could look to free agency to fill in depth at the position. Dwight Freeney and Mario Williams still are available. Freeney showed in Super Bowl LI that he still has something left in the tank. If Patriots coach Bill Belichick could get Williams to show more effort, the former Houston Texans No. 1 overall pick might, too.
Ninkovich never fully got on track last season after his four-game suspension, only providing pressure on 11 percent of his pass-rush snaps in 2016, so it’s not like his retirement will derail the 2017 Patriots. But it’s a shot to their depth at a position that already looked shallow coming into the season. And it puts more pressure on Ealy, who was inconsistent in his time with the Carolina Panthers, to perform.
It would be ideal if Rivers or Wise could step up earlier than expected, but the Patriots will need a backup plan if the rookies can’t get up to speed by September.
Thumbnail photo via Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images
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