FOXBORO, Mass. — No. 50 is in good hands with the New England Patriots.
The number was passed down from one legendary edge defender, Mike Vrabel, to another in Rob Ninkovich. After a couple of special-teams linebackers donned the number over the last two seasons, it’s back on the edge. Outside linebacker Chase Winovich took the number as a rookie after being selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
He’s a natural fit for No. 50 as a 6-foot-3, 250-pound versatile, high-motor pass rusher. He already has 4.5 sacks despite a limited snap count in his first NFL season. That “vich” at the end of his name is an added bonus.
“I’ve got a pretty great relationship with Rob, with Nink,” Winovich said Monday. “I look up to him a lot. He’s obviously been a very accomplished player, and he’s a great person that I can take a lot of lessons from on the field and off the field. And we definitely have some heritage background just with our last names and coming from the Balkans, our ancestors. I know he takes a lot of pride in it as do I.
“He’s a great person on and off the field. It’s really cool to have a relationship with a former player. That means a lot to me, especially someone that I share the same number as. Every time I come into work, I try my best to make those that came before me and my supporters and my family proud. And they’re definitely in that category.”
Ninkovich hopped in the comment section of Winovich’s latest Instagram post with, “Just remember 50s never wear sleeves on gameday! 🥶”
Their relationship started early in Winovich’s NFL career as the rookie walked down the halls of Gillette Stadium in his first days as a Patriot.
“I shook his hand, and we talked for a while,” Winovich said. “He was impressed by my 40 time, I think. He thought that was funny. He’s awesome. We’ve talked on the phone — just like technique, what I need to focus on and what my goals should be. He’s been a great resource for me. It always cracks me up seeing his insight on my Instagram posts. It’s definitely a new era in that sense, a different way for people to connect. He’s been awesome.”
Vrabel wasn’t commenting on Ninkovich’s Instagram page back in 2009 because the site didn’t exist yet. Twitter was even in its early stages. The No. 50 comes with high expectations in New England, but Winovich has embraced it. He wouldn’t go into the process of how players are given or choose numbers (“Yeah, it’s a very secretive process.”), but it sounds like he had a say.
“There was a point in time where early on it was kind of like contemplating different numbers and stuff, but I knew what 50 meant to this program,” Winovich said. “It was a great honor for me to be bestowed with this number that’s been so accomplished. You see lots of pictures of both of those guys all over the building. I know there was other great 50s before them. It was great.”
Winovich said Vrabel and Ninkovich are among the number of different players he studies. He plays a different role in the Patriots’ defense as a situational pass rusher while Vrabel and Ninkovich both dropped back into pass coverage more. Winovich’s role could increase as his career progresses, however.
“They are obviously historically great players, in my opinion,” Winovich said. “They do a lot of things really well and I try to incorporate the good stuff. Like anybody, there’s always things that maybe might not work for me, things that maybe I don’t want to add to my game. And so it’s my job as a professional to filter those things out and use their guidance and their technique and their play on the field and just that kind of study to determine what I need to work on, what I need to add and find areas to improve.”
Winovich is averaging just 18 snaps per game, but he’s still trying to expand his game from college. He quoted the book, “As A Man Thinketh” on his approach with the Patriots: “You cannot travel within and stand still without.”
“I feel like the thing about the Patriots and just being as great of an organization as it has, it’s really forced my mindset to take another step in another direction and as a consequence of that, I think physically and just my comfortability on the field and my knowledge of football, I feel like I’ve expanded in a lot of areas,” Winovich said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a matter of what you show on the field, and I’m just trying to take steps to keep getting better. There’s a lot of work ahead.”
Winovich is definitely off to a hotter start to his NFL career than Vrabel or Ninkovich had as rookies. Vrabel didn’t really get going until his fifth NFL season when he was signed by the Patriots. He had 1.5 sacks as a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1997 and registered just seven sacks in his first four NFL seasons. Ninkovich didn’t record a sack until his first season with the Patriots in 2009. He bounced from the New Orleans Saints to the Miami Dolphins from 2006 to 2008 before catching on and thriving in New England.
Thumbnail photo via Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports Images