With opening day still more than two months away and the mandatory portion of the initial wave of offseason workouts over, we have entered the more quiet parts of the NFL offseason. However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop.
During workouts and studying sessions, players still have a chance to lay the foundation for their spots on the team. Over the course of the next few months, we will take a look at the men fighting for them on the 2017 New England Patriots. 53 of currently 90 players will be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we will continue the series with one of the Patriots’ most experienced defenders.
Name: Rob Ninkovich
Position: Defensive edge
Jersey number: 50
Opening day age: 33
Size: 6’2, 260 lbs.
2016 review: While Tom Brady's four-game suspension for his alleged involvement in the Deflategate farce received almost all of the headlines, a second Patriot was also forced to start the 2016 season on the sidelines: Defensive edge Rob Ninkovich was handed a four-game suspension as well, for using a banned substance during his recovery from a triceps injury he sustained during training camp.
As a result, the veteran's eighth season in New England did not start until already five weeks in. And while he saw only part-time action in his return against the Cleveland Browns, Ninkovich was able to quickly re-establish himself as a productive core member of the Patriots' rotation on the defensive edge.
Overall, he appeared in 12 of the team's regular season games and was on the field for 45.8% of New England's defensive snaps (467 of 1,019). Ninkovich, who was part of a three-man rotation with Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard, registered 32 tackles and 4.0 sacks – tied for third-most on the team despite missing four games (a testament to the Patriots' early-season pass rush struggles). He also had six quarterback hits and an additional 16 hurries.
Ninkovich was not only a solid presence when it comes to rushing the passer, he was once again stout against the run and finished the regular season with three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. And while he was not as productive in coverage – seeing nine of his 12 targets completed for 65 yards –, his overall performance was solid. And the postseason did not look different.
As the second-most used defensive edge during the Patriots' three playoff contests, Ninkovich played 103 of the team's defensive snaps (of 187; 55.1%). En route to his second world championship, he registered six tackles (one of which for loss) as well as one sack, quarterback hit and hurry apiece. Furthermore, the veteran added a fumble recovery during the AFC title game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2017 preview: Despite being the second-oldest defensive player currently signed by the Patriots and hitting the salary cap with a position-high $2.35 million, Rob Ninkovich is close to a lock to make the team's 53-man roster come. The 33-year old will therefore return for a ninth season as one of the most experienced members of a New England defense that ranked first in the NFL in points allowed last year.
And while it remains to be seen whether or not the unit can duplicate its 2016 success, one thing seems certain: Ninkovich will play a similar role to the one he held the last two seasons. As a rotational defensive edge/linebacker hybrid, he is projected to share snaps with offseason acquisitions Kony Ealy and Derek Rivers and consequently be on the field for about half of the Patriots' defensive snaps.
Last year, the veteran looked comfortable playing under a reduced workload yet again. And given his advanced age, it makes sense for the team to stay on that road to keep Ninkovich – as well as the rest of the defensive ends – as fresh and productive as possible throughout the season. A season, that could potentially be Ninkovich's last in Foxboro or the NFL as he enters unrestricted free agency next offseason.