The mandatory phase of the New England Patriots' offseason workouts is over – at least until training camp starts in late July – and we have re-entered the quieter parts of the NFL calendar.
However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop. After all, by late August, each team has to start making its roster cuts. Until then, players have to secure their spots on the team; they need to do their jobs (well) or someone else will.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots on the 2016 New England Patriots. Today, we'll continue the series with defensive end Rob Ninkovich.
Name: Rob Ninkovich
Position: Defensive end
Jersey number: 50
Size: 6'2, 260 lbs.
2015 review: Ninkovich’s seventh year in Foxboro was among his best, not only in terms of production but in terms of consistency as well. Once again, the veteran was solid against both the pass and the rush; both when it came to setting the edge and dropping back into coverage.
Ninkovich appeared in all 18 of the Patriots’ 2015 games and saw the most playing time of the team’s defensive linemen: he finished the season with 81.8% of defensive snaps played (1,022 of 1,249). Still, it was the first time since 2012 that he played less than 90% of the team’s defensive snaps. The lower playing time percentage was possible due to New England’s defensive end rotation and contributed to Ninkovich’s consistent season.
Overall, he finished the year with solid numbers. Ninkovich, who was voted a team captain prior to the season, registered 6.5 sacks, while leading the team in quarterback hits (13) and pressures (22). Furthermore, only seven of the 18 passes thrown in his direction were completed (for 35 yards and a touchdown). He also registered 60 tackles and six run stuffs, forced and recovered one fumble each, and drew five penalties.
2016 preview: Given his age and $4.75 million cap hit (including $25,000 for each time he is active on game day), Ninkovich is no lock to make the Patriots' roster. However, his chances are very good considering his importance as a team leader off the field and the relative uncertainty it currently has at the defensive edge position outside of him, Jabaal Sheard and possibly Shea McClellin.
Naturally, Ninkovich still has to earn a spot on the 53-man roster and subsequently atop the depth chart. To do that he needs to "do his job", no matter how this job will ultimately look like. While the 32-year old has been a starter at defensive end ever since 2012, the coaching staff lined him up at linebacker over the course of OTAs and minicamp. Could a position change be coming for the versatile veteran? It certainly is possible.
With the aforementioned McClellin, who played linebacker most of his NFL career but looks better suited as an edge defender, lining up with the defensive ends, Ninkovich could take over his originally envisaged role off the line of scrimmage. He has experience at the position, beginning his career in New England as an outside linebacker in the team’s 3-4 scheme. When the Patriots changed their base alignment to a 4-3, Ninkovich moved to the defensive line.
He has the tools to move back again, but such a move – like McClellin’s – might not be permanent. It would not be a surprise to see McClellin and Ninkovich as well as Sheard all be part of a very versatile rotation on the defensive edge: all three have experienced playing on and off the line, dropping into coverage, defending the run and the pass. And all three might line up in one spot on one play, and somewhere else on the next.
Added all up and the prospects of Ninkovich playing the 11th season of his professional career in Foxboro do look very good.
It seems highly likely that Rob Ninkovich will make the Patriots’ 2016 roster, play a noticeable number of snaps again, and be a leader on and off the field. No matter if he ultimately lines up as a linebacker, defensive end or emergency long snapper, he will continue do what he has always done: his job.