When the Patriots signed an unknown long snapper/reserve 4-3 defensive end who had spent time with the Dolphins and Saints named Rob Ninkovich a week into 2009’s training camp no one thought much of it. The Patriots are always signing guys like this, and usually they don’t last very long.
Some were probably surprised when Ninkovich made the 2009 squad, I know I was, and it appeared early on that he was little more than just a special teamer, ala Larry Izzo. Nothing against Izzo, teams need guys like that, but there was no indication that the undersized Ninkovich was ever going to make an impact in the base defense.
He played on all special teams right out of the gate, and began to see some spot duty at outside linebacker as Adalius Thomas fell out of favor with the Patriots.
As is often the case with players that Bill Belichick likes, Ninkovich slowly began to see more and more time on the field in defensive situations as the 2009 season progressed, even earning a two year contract extension in early December.
In the last four games of the season he averaged 31% of the snaps as an outside linebacker.
Still, Patriots fans weren’t sure what to make of Ninkovich. Was he just a stop gap? A core special teams guy who was getting a shot in the base and sub defenses by default? Or was he a real building block as Belichick re-built his defense?
Clearly the contract extension and gradual increases in playing time and role indicated that the Patriots liked Ninkovich, but it was still unclear at the end of 2009 just what his ceiling might be. Most probably hoped he’d get beaten out by a rookie pass rusher in 2010 and his career with the Patriots would be over.
In 2010 Ninkovich continued to build on his 2009 season, seeing significant snaps throughout the season in an outside linebacker rotation with Jermaine Cunningham, Tully Banta-Cain, and later in the season Eric Moore. Yet despite a 4 sack, 2 interception, and 62 tackle season many Patriots fans remains skeptical that Ninkovich is anything more than a seat filler until the team could draft or sign a big name OLB.
However I believe that he’s a far bigger piece of the puzzle than most.
First, let’s begin with the below chart as an overview of Ninkovich’s playing time over the past two season. As you can see he has steadily improved and gotten more and more time as his Patriots career has progressed.
Now it’s clear that Ninkovich has strengths and weaknesses, as evidenced by the continued spikes in playing time over 2010. When you analyze which games he played more and less in, it’s apparent that the Patriots view his biggest strength as a 3-4 base defense run stopper.
If you compare his playing time spikes to Brandon Spikes’ you’ll notice a correlation. Both played their highest snap totals against the ground and pounders. The top three games Ninkovich played the highest percentage of the snaps (not counting the season ender vs. Miami) were:
- Ravens (75.3%)
- Browns (62.9%)
- Jets game one (60.8%)
The games he played least? Pass happy San Diego and Indianapolis.
Taking another look at the Ravens game and the Jets playoff game showed me a lot on Ninkovich. In the playoff game especially Ninkovich came to play, setting the edge with authority and demonstrating a relentless pass rush that forced pressure on Mark Sanchez a few times.
He had 2 passes defended and four tackles in that game, and it’s worth mentioning that the Pats D fell apart in the fourth quarter after Ninkovich had been lost with a knee injury. Not to say that was the reason why, but he brought an “A” effort against the Jets, and losing him with an already depleted OLB crew certainly hurt.
Some will remain unconvinced, despite 2010 being the first season that Ninkovich played consistently in a defense for an NFL team. They’ll look at his mere four sacks and conclude that he’s not the answer for the pass rush problems, especially since two of them came in the meaningless game seventeen.
Well let’s take a look at Mike Vrabel’s sack numbers over his career with the Pats: 3, 4.5, 9.5, 5.5, 4.5, 4.5, 12.5, 4. Doesn’t seem like Ninkovich is that far off does it? Vrabel took a similar path to the Patriots, and it wasn’t until his third season under BB’s tutelage that he really blossomed.
One thing that is continually marginalized is the effect of a player getting experience in the Belichick 3-4 defense. In a read and react defense the more experience you have, the quicker and better your reads are, and the more decisive your reactions will be.
With two full years in the system, and one playing extensively, I don’t think it’s a stretch to expect Ninkovich to become an even bigger impact outside linebacker for the Patriots.
When I watch him play against the physical Ravens and Jets teams I see a player who is tough and ready to take on blockers. It’s not always perfect with him for sure, he lost contain more than a couple times this past season, but his playing time would not continue to rise if Belichick did not see something in him.
I believe Ninkovich has demonstrated enough in all aspects of the game that he is definitely a player who will be a solid piece of an outside linebacker rotation for the Patriots, and not just an out-of-place special teamer who should be nothing more than a back up.
For a look at Ninkovich’s football journey, check out this piece from Mike Reiss.