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How Patriots ED Rob Ninkovich’s suspension affects the defense and his future with the team

The veteran is in danger of losing all of his defensive roles during his suspension.

New England Patriots edge defender Rob Ninkovich’s 4-game suspension was announced during the Friday afternoon news dump. Ninkovich will be eligible to return alongside quarterback Tom Brady, who is suspended for the first four games of the season due to a Roger Goodell power trip.

Ninkovich claims the failed drug test was the result of an over-the-counter supplement that did not list the banned substance in the ingredients.

“I was unaware something I bought had a substance in it that would give me a positive test because it wasn't listed [as an ingredient]," Ninkovich told ESPN. "One thing I have learned is that if a supplement is not NSF certified, there are no regulations that ensure that what is on the label is 100 percent accurate. That is a hard lesson for me to learn at this stage in my career, but I take responsibility for it.”

Ninkovich is responsible for whatever goes into his body, so he’ll be out for the first four games of the year- and it’s extremely possible that this will jeopardize his role with the team for the rest of 2016 and beyond.

Ninkovich is a team captain, so this isn’t a statement on how he’s perceived in the locker room. But his suspension, in addition to his time off to recover from torn triceps this preseason, has opened the door for other players to emerge.

We all know that Jabaal Sheard is the team’s top edge defender, but veteran Chris Long has emerged as a quality every-down option in Ninkovich’s spot on the left side of the defensive line. And as Sheard has been recovering from an MCL sprain, sophomore Trey Flowers has emerged as a player deserving of serious time in the defensive rotation.

So while Ninkovich is suspended, the Patriots will move forward with a Sheard, Long, and Flowers rotation. Based on the preseason performances by Long and Flowers, I would consider them superior options to the 32-year-old Ninkovich, whose performance has declined in each of the past two seasons. If the best possible trio plays on the edge, I don’t see Ninkovich receiving much time when he returns to the field.

And while Ninkovich is suspended, the Patriots could use an extra edge defender, so bubble players like Geneo Grissom and Rufus Johnson will have a better chance of making the team. At this point in time, Johnson is the far better defender, but Grissom adds more special teams value and that could be the deciding factor for a depth player.

We saw Grissom play about 10% of the defensive snaps last year as the #4 defensive end, while the starters played roughly 80% and Sheard, as the #3, played 50%. Ninkovich’s future could be that reduced 10% role, unless the Patriots feel comfortable rotating Sheard, Long, Flowers, and Ninkovich at 60% apiece. This isn’t unheard of an aligns with how the 2013 Seahawks deployed their edge defenders.

We also know that Ninkovich was working out at the linebacker position this offseason in the SAM role that Shea McClellin debuted in week 1 of the preseason against the Saints. McClellin performed well in that function and the Patriots added Barkevious Mingo as another option for the position. If Mingo’s performance against the Giants is any indicator, he could be in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.

When Ninkovich returns in October, he could be out of the rotation in both of his defensive roles- and Ninkovich needs to be productive this season. He’ll turn 33 in February and he’ll be a free agent coming off a season with a PED suspension and torn triceps. He won’t be highly desirable on the open market.

There is a very possible scenario where Chris Long, who is one year younger than Ninkovich, has a productive campaign and signs a two-year deal to remain with the Patriots, allowing Long to serve as the veteran presence at defensive end. The clear parallel would be how the Patriots moved on from Vince Wilfork in favor of Alan Branch.

If Flowers plays well- and all signs are pointing in that direction- he’ll be the favorite for one of the starting jobs in 2017, and there’s still the potential for Sheard to return. If these pieces fall into place, there might not be a role for Ninkovich in the defensive rotation.

The same applies to the SAM linebacker position, where McClellin is under contract, and where Mingo could opt to return on a short-term deal to improve his market value before entering free agency.

This is an incredibly difficult situation for Ninkovich, who acknowledges he’s in the twilight of his career. Hopefully he can return from his suspension and play at a high level so he can finish his career in a Patriots uniform.