When the Patriots first signed "journeyman" outside linebacker / defensive end Rob Ninkovich on August 2nd, 2009, I mostly overlooked the transaction (except for providing nothing more than a few lines in a general training camp post - I ran things differently on my old blog). When I posted my final roster predictions, I barely even thought to consider the former Dolphin and Saint who had been involved in ten career transactions while playing in just eight games prior to landing with New England.
Of course, Rob Ninkovich made the Patriots' 53 man roster in 2009. He quickly became one of my favorite players as a developmental outside linebacker prospect, but I never really thought he would be a big-time difference maker on a defense. In 2010, when the Patriots brought in Jermaine Cunningham via the draft, and with Tully Banta-Cain coming off a ten sack season, I continued to overlook Ninkovich as a starting player. However, just two weeks into the 2010 season, Ninkovich had supplanted Banta-Cain as one of the team's starting outside linebackers.
On the year, Ninkovich recorded four sacks and 55 tackles in 16 games played (10 starts). He was the Patriots best coverage outside linebacker (recorded his only two interceptions against Miami, but was solid throughout the year). By this point, I regarded Ninkovich as a starting capable player who could play either outside linebacker spot and was solid, but replaceable.
I carried that disposition into this season, and when the Patriots switched to the 4-3 base defense, I initially didn't even project Ninkovich as a long-term starter. In fact, I'll admit that I felt that by mid-August, Dane Fletcher would eventually supplant Ninkovich as the strong-side linebacker (after Fletcher's strong preseason showing).
However, over the course of the 2011 season, Rob Ninkovich has developed into such an impact player for the Patriots, that it's becoming harder and harder to overlook him as a true difference maker on the field. In twelve games this season (all starts), Ninkovich has recorded 54 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions and four passes defensed for New England. He had a game clinching pick-six in the Patriots' season-turning victory over the New York Jets in week ten and he has recorded sacks in three straight games.
More on Ninkovich's 2011 performance after the jump!
But the stats don't tell the whole story. Rob Ninkovich has developed into a one-of-a-kind player for the Patriots. In the 4-3, Ninkovich has moved to strong-side linebacker and hasn't missed a beat. On any given play, he can drop into coverage as a traditional linebacker, starting off the line, and on the next he can put his hand on the dirt as a rush defensive end. I still consider him the Patriots' best coverage linebacker, and he has also established himself as a solid run defender as well. While he's not an elite pass rusher by any stretch of the imagination, he has certainly proven to be capable in that role as well.
Put it this way: The reason the Patriots have been able to change up their fronts from play to play, disguising their soft zones and blitzes is in large part due to Ninkovich's ability to play that hybrid defensive end / strong-side linebacker role and perform any given task on any given down.
The purpose of this article isn't for me to anoint Ninkovich king of the football universe or call him one of the NFL's elite linebackers. He's neither of those things. My purpose here is to give recognition to a player that has been largely underrated and is playing a very key role for this New England Patriots defense. In the 2011 season, Rob Ninkovich has proven to me that he's not "just another guy" (such as all of the street free agents the Patriots have thrust into starting roles this season) - he has become a true difference maker.
While no one can truly know where Ninkovich will line-up for the Patriots in the team's 2012 defense, what I do know is that barring something completely unforeseen, Nink's role will be an important one no matter where he lines up.
Rob Ninkovich, I'm sorry.
I've underrated you for so long. You deserve your credit, and I'm giving it to you now.