Rob Ninkovich is the sixth-longest tenured New England Patriot. He also happens to be coming off his most abbreviated season since 2009, when the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins castoff arrived in training camp wearing a No. 45 jersey and proceeded to carve a path to the field via special teams.
Ninkovich’s inaugural campaign in Foxborough stands distant now. It finished with him having played in 15 games to notch 23 tackles and the first sack of his NFL career, working mostly in the kicking game while rotating in as a reserve outside linebacker behind the likes of Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess.
He didn’t start a game that year. Nor did he during his three injury-riddled seasons between the Saints and Dolphins. But that would change in 2010.
It was then that No. 50 cracked the Patriots’ starting lineup for 10 contests and logged 62 tackles, four sacks and a pair of interceptions. By 2011, the well-traveled fifth-rounder and onetime long snapper had become an unlikely staple off the edge.
And a model of consistency.
The last six regular seasons have seen Ninkovich play in 92 games and start 91 of them. In terms of appearances, the Purdue product is tied for fifth among all NFL defensive players over that span. In terms of starts, he’s tied for sixth with teammate Devin McCourty as well as Julius Peppers, Sean Smith and Earl Thomas.
“He's out there every day, and so that builds the communication and consistency with your defense, with his teammates, with everything,” head coach Bill Belichick said of Ninkovich during a January 2016 press conference, via Patriots.com. “It's a guy that you just don't even think about not being out there because he's always out there.”
Ninkovich sat out four games this past season, however, with a torn triceps cutting his training camp short before a banned-substance suspension came down in early September.
It marked his first missed action since Nov. 22, 2009 against the New York Jets.
The versatile veteran returned to start 11 of New England’s final 12 games from there, yet rather quietly posted 32 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble by the time the playoffs got underway. Perhaps that semblance of regression should be expected.
Ninkovich is 33 years old and on the doorstep of his 12th year in the league. He’s no longer a 1,000-snap player who’ll vie for the team lead in quarterback hits or turnovers. And yet, there’s something to be said for how steady he has been, for as long as he has been.
It’s taken more than availability for that to come to fruition.
Dating back to 2011, when he started all 16 games for the first time, Ninkovich has accumulated 41 sacks. According to Pro Football Reference, it’s a tally good enough to match ex-Patriot Chris Long and AFC East foe Muhammad Wilkerson for 20th in the NFL through that stretch.
His three seasons with eight sacks over that span tie for third in the league. His five seasons with at least 6.5 sacks, meanwhile, tie for second and land Ninkovich in the company of Cliff Avril, Calais Campbell, Cameron Jordan and Von Miller.
Ninkovich won’t be mistaken for any of whom. But the 6-foot-2, 260-pound pursuer has been able to take down the QB – and take away the football.
While his most recent interception transpired in 2014, Ninkovich has forced 11 fumbles over the last six campaigns, matching Wilkerson, Michael Bennett, Brandon Graham, Quintin Mikell, Alec Ogletree, and former Patriots in Jamie Collins and Jabaal Sheard for ninth-most in the NFL.
With regards to fumble recoveries, Ninkovich’s 11 sit in a tie for third-most alongside Peppers, a nine-time Pro Bowler.
But it isn’t a game of past production. It isn’t one many play well into their mid-30s, either. Ninkovich has made his case as an exception to this point. He’s found longevity.
He now finds himself looking to stay current on a depth chart featuring an emerging Trey Flowers, and new faces ranging from trade acquisition Kony Ealy to rookie draft picks Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr. He finds himself entering the final leg of his third contract extension, and slated to account for a cap hit of $2.45 million in 2017.
The rest is up to time.
“Right now I’m not thinking about the end,” Ninkovich told reporters last spring amidst organized team activities. “I’m just continuing to try and help the team win and contribute any way I can. I’m not thinking about the finish line right now, so I’m just trying to work on myself and show these young guys that an old guy can still run and do all the things that you need to do, right?”
A year later, Ninkovich is still doing all the things he needs to do. And while his stay with the Patriots is on the home stretch, it’s one few could have foreseen taking the route it did in July 2009, or even in September 2011.
It also isn’t hard to see why it has.