The New England Patriots received some devastating injury news Thursday morning, with reports coming down that linebacker Dont’a Hightower had suffered a torn pectoral muscle — a potentially season-ending injury.
Immediately, the focus among Patriots fans and media members turned to the question of who will replace Hightower, a second-team All-Pro last season and arguably New England’s most important defensive player.
Here’s a name for you: How about Rob Ninkovich?
Ninkovich, who played the last eight seasons as a defensive end/outside linebacker for the Patriots, is just a few months into retirement, having called it quits shortly after training camp began. He’s 33 — on the older side for a defensive player, sure, but by no means ancient — and probably would have begun this season as one of New England’s starting defensive ends had he not chosen to walk away from the game.
Ninkovich played in 12 games for the Patriots in 2016, starting 11 and tallying 32 tackles and four sacks. His retirement, coupled with the departures of Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard, the failure of the Kony Ealy trade and a season-ending injury to rookie Derek Rivers, left a mess on the edge that the Patriots still are trying to clean up.
Since hanging up his cleats, Ninkovich has remained around the team, serving as a pseudo-coach during camp and working as an analyst on NBC Sports Boston’s Patriots pregame shows.
Which brings us to the next logical question: Would Ninkovich even want to return?
He left the door open for a potential comeback in multiple interviews last month, and The MMQB’s Albert Breer, who works with Ninkovich on the pregame show, said Wednesday he believes the veteran D-end could rejoin the Patriots for the right paycheck.
“I certainly would make that call,” Breer said on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher & Rich.” “I know, having talked to some offensive coaches who have coached against the Patriots this year, that there’s a feeling that they do miss Rob Ninkovich’s versatility out there. And when you talk about what they’re going to lose in Hightower, a guy who can play multiple spots, that’s absolutely part of who Rob Ninkovich was in all of his time there.
“So if I’m the Patriots, I absolutely pick up the phone and make that call. I think the question is how much does it take for it to be worth Rob’s while to come out of retirement.”
With Hightower out, Elandon Roberts is the best bet to start at linebacker alongside Kyle Van Noy, who has played nearly every defensive snap this season. Behind them on the depth chart are David Harris, Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly.
Shea McClellin certainly will factor into the equation once he returns from injured reserve (which could be as soon as next week), and defensive ends Cassius Marsh and Adam Butler and safety/linebacker Jordan Richards all could see increased playing time, as well.
Thumbnail photo via Chuck Cook/USA TODAY Sports Images
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