FOXBORO, Mass. — Rob Ninkovich's positional versatility has continued to show up during the Patriots' first month of camp.
He's played three different positions on defense — 3-4 outside linebacker, 4-3 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end — and he has also stepped in for long-snapping duty.
It's not really anything new for Ninkovich, who was a defensive end in Purdue's four-man front, played long snapper in his first couple seasons in the NFL and made a nice transition last year as the Patriots' starting outside linebacker in their 3-4 base defense.
For him, he's enjoying the challenge of evolving as an all-around player in his sixth pro season.
"I really haven't done everything," Ninkovich said of his past experience with the three defensive positions. "Before, I was really just a D-end or the 3-4. For me, I've always been getting after the quarterback since I was college, so it's not like a huge change to rush [the quarterback]. Either I'm standing up or in the three-point stance, it's not a big deal. Working on coverage, that's the biggest thing that I've done in camp, just work on my coverage, continue to improve on that so I can have the coaches' confidence that I'm going to cover the guys that I need to cover."
Ninkovich has the least amount of experience as an outside linebacker in the 4-3, but he also hasn't taken a ton of reps at that spot in the last month, either. The Patriots will mostly use him on the edge at the line of scrimmage, which is where he appears to be most comfortable.
There are two primary differences between the 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end. In the 3-4, Ninkovich could have the responsibility to drop back in coverage. And he also has more space to rush the passer because he's typically not lined up directly off the shoulder of the tackle.
On the surface, it's not always perfectly clear what Ninkovich's assignment could be on a particular play, but that's obviously by design. For instance, just because he's in the two-point stance (standing upright) before the snap, it doesn't mean he's dropping back into coverage. And if he's in the three-point stance (one hand on the ground), it doesn't mean he's definitely rushing the passer.
Ninkovich has picked up plenty of techniques and carved out his preferences throughout his football career, and that's why Bill Belichick has the luxury of moving Ninkovich between assignments.
"I like to do both, change it up," Ninkovich said of each pre-snap stance. "Sometimes, even in 4-3, standing up just to change it up at times is a good thing. I can rush out of the two- or the three-. It really doesn't matter. The three-point stance sometimes is just a better get-off stance, just like a sprinter would be down. I'm not going to start a race changing up."
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