The New England Patriots have lost edge defender Rob Ninkovich for 4-6 weeks with a torn triceps, which sets his return for early September. He could be back for week 1 against the Cardinals, but based upon how head coach Bill Belichick approached injuries in 2015, I wouldn’t be surprised if he made Ninkovich wait an extra week or two to ensure a full recovery.
It’s never good to lose a player like Ninkovich. He’s a defensive captain who has started every single game over the past five seasons and is the longest tenured defensive player on the roster. He’s versatile and allows the defensive to play multiple fronts without changing the personnel on the field.
But there are some silver linings.
First, Ninkovich isn’t lost for the season. This is huge. Ninkovich will be a free agent after this season and will turn 33 years old in February. It’s extremely rare for players at this stage in their career to continue after a season-ending injury and it would be very possible that the Patriots would move on.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised if Belichick walked away from a 33-year-old edge defender coming off a season-ending injury, especially when you factor in the young talent on the roster in Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom, and Rufus Johnson. Belichick moved on from defensive tackle Vince Wilfork in favor of Alan Branch, and Chris Long could very well play the part of Branch.
Ninkovich will return and play the bulk of the season and he still has a chance of reaching the 50 sacks that he wants over his career.
Second, as Michael wrote, the door has been opened for the future. While Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long will likely be the first team starters in preseason and at the start of the regular season, the younger players on the roster, like Flowers, Grissom, Johnson, and Shea McClellin will have the ability to make a statement and earn time on the field.
Last season, the starting trio of Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and Jabaal Sheard played 92.8% of all the edge defender snaps in the regular season, with the bulk of the remainder going to Geneo Grissom. Sheard, as the #3 edge defender, played 62% of the snaps in the games he played. That’s a lot of time that just opened up on the field with the first unit defense.
And even when Ninkovich returns, the young players could still see increased time because the coaching staff could place the veteran on a snap count to keep him fresh.
Third, and final, is that Ninkovich has been on the decline in recent years. He was one of the best run defenders in the league in 2013, but his ability has degraded over the past two seasons and his snaps have fallen from 95.5% in 2013 to 81.3% in 2015. His run with the Patriots was coming to an end at some point in the near future.
The coaching staff had him line up at linebacker during camp and said it was to increase his versatility. I think it was a polite way of finding another role for Ninkovich in case a younger player emerged as a superior talent. Sheard is already better than Ninkovich, while Long is a superior rusher for passing downs. If a player like Flowers or McClellin proved to be a more consistent option on running downs, then there likely wouldn’t be a spot for Ninkovich in the top rotation.
There’s no question that Ninkovich adds value to the roster. He makes the crucial sacks at the end of games, he’s a team leader and an influential member of the locker room, and he’s one of Belichick’s favorites. It’s just that he has been rapidly approaching “replaceable” on the field, and now the team has a way to rotate in some fresh talent.