FOXBORO, Mass. — Versatility is one of the most important skills any player in any sport can bring to his or her team.
For defensive players in the NFL, it’s almost a requirement. There are so many different defensive schemes and packages that put players into different roles each game.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has added several of these versatile players to his roster throughout his tenure in Foxboro, and it’s been a major component in New England winning four Super Bowl titles since 2001.
One of those players is Rob Ninkovich.
“Rob’s got a great feel for the game,” Belichick said before Friday’s training camp practice. “First of all, he’s got great physical skills. He can run, he’s athletic, he’s strong, so he can hang in there against the big guys but is athletic (enough) to play in space. Whether that be in the kicking game or as an off-the-line linebacker, you can drop him into coverage from the line of scrimmage.”
Ninkovich is able to play defensive end or line up as a linebacker. He’s a capable pass rusher — 6.5 or more sacks in each of the last five seasons — and he can chase down ball carriers in the open field with his positional awareness and tackling ability.
“Mentally, he sees the game as well,” Belichick said. “He can move around, do different things. He doesn’t get bogged down. He has the ability to play in coverage, which means you have to see the game a little bit behind you in pass coverage. It’s not all in front of you, especially in zone defense. There are plays behind you. You have to have an awareness for where receivers are, where people are on the field.
“Mike (Vrabel) was able to do that. Junior (Seau) was able to do that, although Junior primarily played inside linebacker, but he played on the line quite a bit, rushed quite a bit. Tedy (Bruschi) certainly did that over the course of his career, even though the majority of his college career was down and the majority of his pro career was up, but he showed the ability to do both of those things at a very high level. You get players that do that. Not everybody can do it, but when you have one that can, it is a big advantage.”
The Patriots had a pretty good defense last season, ranking fifth in turnover differential, second in sacks and 10th in points allowed per game.
They’ll need Ninkovich to continue to bring his versatility, as well as his skills in coverage and against the run, for New England’s defensive unit to remain one of the NFL’s best.
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