New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a short list of favorite linebackers under his instruction. He will always mention Giants edge defender Lawrence Taylor when reflecting upon his career, and he has a favorite list of Patriots ‘backers.
"Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player," Belichick wrote after trading Vrabel to the Chiefs in 2009. "Toughness, intelligence, play-making, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level."
“Of all the players I have coached, nobody was more full of energy and vitality than Junior Seau,” Belichick said after the Hall of Famer passed away in 2012.
But nothing compares to the lofty praise he heaps on Tedy Bruschi.
“I’ve had the privilege of coaching a lot of great players and great leaders in the National Football League and I’ll just put Tedy up there with all of them and above all of them,” Belichick said at Bruschi’s retirement. “If you ask me to sum it up- how I feel about Tedy Bruschi in five seconds- He’s the perfect player. He’s the perfect player.”
And still there’s a player on the Patriots that Belichick feels comfortable mentioning in the same breath as these All Pro players.
Rob Ninkovich. Seriously.
When asked to discuss Ninkovich’s versatility, Belichick didn’t hold back.
“Rob's got a great feel for the game,” Belichick said on Friday. “First of all, he's got great physical skills. He can run, he's athletic, he's strong, so he can hang in there against the big guys but is athletic [enough] to play in space. Whether that be in the kicking game or as an off-the-line linebacker; you can drop him into coverage from the line of scrimmage.
“Mentally, he sees the game as well. He can move around, do different things. He doesn't get bogged down. He has the ability to play in coverage, which means you have to see the game a little bit behind you in pass coverage. It's not all in front of you, especially in zone defense. There are plays behind you. You have to have an awareness for where receivers are, where people are on the field.
“Mike [Vrabel] was able to do that. Junior [Seau] was able to do that, although Junior primarily played inside linebacker, but he played on the line quite a bit, rushed quite a bit. Tedy [Bruschi] certainly did that over the course of his career even though the majority of his college career was down and the majority of his pro career was up, but he showed the ability to do both of those things at a very high level...Lawrence [Taylor] did that, Carl [Banks] did that, Pepper [Johnson] did that in New York.”
This has to be some of the highest praise that Belichick has given a player for their football intelligence and their versatility. At first blush, Ninkovich doesn’t compare to Taylor, Seau, Bruschi, Vrabel, Banks, or Johnson, with their combined 24 All Pro nominations. But when you step back and examine this further, well, wait, never mind, he still doesn’t compare.
But that’s okay because everything Belichick says about Ninkovich’s skill set is true. He was one of the most dominant run stuffers in the league for a stretch of time and he has the flexibility to drop back into coverage. He gives the Jets and Colts nightmares and what more could you ask for in a player?
And also note that this isn’t a one-for-one comparison. Taylor and Seau shares skills with Ninkovich in the same way that Tom Brady shares skills with Matt Ryan. Ryan plays the same position and he’s pretty darn good, but Brady takes the role to a different plane of existence.
Ninkovich is not the player that he was in 2013 and his role will likely decrease in each coming year. Belichick signed another versatile player in Shea McClellin who offers a lot of the same skills.
“[McClellin’s] been a versatile player,” Belichick said on Friday. “Shea's a four-down player. He's done a good job for us at defensive end, pass rushing situations. He's got good quickness and strength in the running game, as well.”
While McClellin needs more experience in the Patriots system, he is under contract for three seasons and will continue to develop. He will be the heir to Ninkovich in the same way that Ninkovich followed Vrabel.
And maybe some day Belichick will be mentioning McClellin in the same breath as Bruschi and Seau- but until then, we should just enjoy the final few seasons of Rob Ninkovich.