Outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich #50 of the New England Patriots recovers the ball against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.
Patriots outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich has consistently proven his doubters wrong since he first arrived on the scene to New England. In 2009, most did not think he would make the final roster. In 2010, most thought he would play marginally on defense. In 2011, most thought he would be replaced mid-season as the SAM OLB in the 4-3. Despite all these doubters, Ninkovich keeps on exceeding the expectations given to him, and has quickly become one of the team's most valuable and versatile defenders.
Once again, heading into 2012, Ninkovich has become somewhat of an afterthought due to the additions of rookies Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, and Jake Bequette along the front seven. However, once the season begins, I highly doubt Ninkovich will be an afterthought. I can't tell you exactly what position he will play, but I can tell you this: he will have a significant role for the team.
Recently, ProFootballFocus.com highlighted Ninkovich as part of their "Secret Superstars" series:
The 2011 season started with the Patriots experimenting with a new defensive front and with Ninkovich playing a new position. To this point in his career, he'd primarily lined up as a 3-4 OLB while occasionally putting his hand on the ground to rush the quarterback. He played defensive end in college, so much of his career had already been spent learning how to play a new position. Last year he added 4-3 SAM linebacker to his resume.
It's a very unique skill set that allows for smooth transition from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 OLB to pass rushing defensive end, and for some players it can be a year-long process. There is no such timeframe in the Patriots' defense and Ninkovich's role evolved week-to-week and sometimes play-to-play.
The entire article is a long read, but certainly worth it. Players like Rob Ninkovich may never get the attention they deserve, but they are key parts of the defense that really allow it to stay as versatile and constantly evolving as it is.