In the fifth round of the 2006 NFL Draft, the New Orleans Saints decided to pick an undersized defensive end out of Purdue. He signed a three-year contract, made it through his first rounds of roster cuts and appeared in four games during his rookie campaign. Unfortunately, his first NFL season ended prematurely because of injury.
That player was Rob Ninkovich.
After another injury forced him to miss the entire 2007 preseason, the Saints waived Ninkovich and he was claimed by the Miami Dolphins. After spending 2007 and the early parts of 2008 in Florida, the defensive end again changed teams: the Saints signed him from the Dolphins' practice squad to their active roster.
However, Ninkovich again failed to make an impression in New Orleans – at least as a defender. The team's coaching staff around head coach Sean Payton tried to convert the then-25-year old to long snapper but the move didn't work. Ninkovich was released yet again. Three days later, he was signed by the New England Patriots.
Seven seasons, 123 games and 42.0 sacks later, Ninkovich is still going strong; much to the chagrin of the coach who decided to release him twice. During yesterday's press conference, Sean Payton was asked about regrets with player moves. And New England's defensive end was mentioned:
There's still regrets everytime I see Ninkovich line up and sack someone for New England.
It wasn't the first time Payton mentioned Ninkovich, who will appear in his 13th playoff game next Saturday, as the prime example for a player, his team let get away. In 2013, prior to the Patriots-Saints regular season meeting in Foxboro, Payton said the following about the defensive end:
[H]e is a good example of someone that we drafted and yet I don’t know if we had a real good vision of what we wanted to do with him. And then it only gets worse because he’s back in the building a few years later and we have a second go at it, and we don’t capitalize on that. First off, he’s an extremely motivated player, hardworking, smart. He has all of those qualities that we look for. And those are the types of things that keep you up at night as a coach is having a good football player like that right under your wing twice and not being able to take advantage of it.
The Patriots have also seen those qualities in Ninkovich and used them as a foundation upon which to create a role for the versatile and durable defender, who will try to help New England get its second world championship since he arrived in 2009.
Once again, thank you, coach Payton, for letting Rob Ninkovich get away.