The New England Patriots suffer from one of those good problems: They’ll have three — maybe four — starting-caliber defensive ends when Rob Ninkovich returns from his four-game suspension next week.
Jabaal Sheard is a near-certainty to stay at starting right defensive end, where he leads the Patriots with two sacks this season. Based on his performance so far, Chris Long shouldn’t lose his starting role at left defensive end, either. He leads the team with 19 total pressures (one sack, four QB hits and 14 hurries) while providing stout and oftentimes disruptive run defense.
So what changes for Long when Ninkovich returns? Possibly not much.
Ninkovich could keep his starting job by moving to linebacker in the Patriots’ base configuration. He spent time there during the spring and summer, and the position was his primary role prior to 2012. Ninkovich is a strong run defender, and since he’d play the position on early downs, he wouldn’t need to frequently drop into coverage.
Ninkovich still could rush the passer on third down, when the Patriots deploy three or four pass rushers along their defensive line. He also could rotate in nickel to give Sheard and Long rest. Sheard has played 77 percent of defensive snaps this season, while Long has played 71 percent. Trey Flowers, who has been serving as the Patriots’ third down/rotational pass rusher, has played 51 percent.
The Patriots freed up some pass-rushing snaps by releasing interior rusher Anthony Johnson this week. Ninkovich essentially could take over Flowers’ pass-rushing role, while Flowers takes over Johnson’s position as the team’s primary interior rusher. Snaps could be scaled back slightly for Long, Sheard and Flowers and drastically for Shea McClellin and Jonathan Freeny — especially since Dont’a Hightower is expected to return.
The Patriots also could deploy a four-man front featuring Long, Flowers, Sheard and Ninkovich on obvious passing situations now that Johnson is out of the picture.
Here’s how the Patriots’ front-seven snaps broke down in Week 1 when Hightower was healthy:
LB Jamie Collins: 61 (100 percent)
LB Dont’a Hightower: 58 (95 percent)
DE Jabaal Sheard: 44 (72 percent)
DE Chris Long: 40 (66 percent)
DT Alan Branch: 31 (51 percent)
DT Malcom Brown: 30 (49 percent)
LB Shea McClellin: 24 (39 percent)
DE Trey Flowers: 21 (34 percent)
DT Anthony Johnson: 20 (33 percent)
DT Vincent Valentine: 19 (31 percent)
LB Jonathan Freeny: 6 (10 percent)
Ninkovich could find around 40 snaps by replacing McClellin, Freeny and some of Flowers’ snaps. And Flowers still could see the field by taking over Johnson’s snaps.
An excess of pass rushers never is a bad thing for an NFL team. Rotating multiple rushers keeps players fresh and less likely to suffer injury. Sheard, Long, Ninkovich and even Flowers are similarly productive, so it’s unnecessary for one player to be on the field for every defensive snap.
Sheard and Flowers’ versatility to rush from the inside, and Ninkovich’s ability to play linebacker gives the Patriots valuable versatility in their front seven.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images