Rob Ninkovich announced his retirement Sunday, confirming the speculation that has been going since he was absent since the start of training camp. Ninkovich signed with the Patriots as a free agent prior to the 2009 season. “Nink” had bounced back and forth between the Saints and Dolphins for the first 3 years of his career, finding little success—he alluded to this himself—until he landed in New England, where he rode out the remainder of his career, playing a role in two Super Bowl victories and a third appearance.
Though he never made a Pro Bowl, Nink was a fan favorite and a key role player for the majority of his time in New England. He had an excellent New England career and is one of the better free agent signings of the Belichick era, but was it enough to crack Belichick’s top 5 free agent signings?
*Note: All free agent signings are taken from the team site.
5.) Roman Phifer
After eleven years with the Rams and Jets, Roman Phifer joined the Patriots at the perfect time. Signed to a four year, $9.27 million deal prior to the 2001 season, Phifer was a member of all three Super Bowl winning teams of the early 2000’s. Phifer was a key role player, playing in 59 of a possible 64 regular season games, starting 46 (45 of those starts came in the first three seasons). He had at least 66 solo tackles in each of the first 3 years, and went undefeated in the playoffs for his career, capping each playoff run he made with a Super Bowl victory.
4.) Alan Branch
Alan Branch already making the list may surprise some, but since signing with New England in October of 2014, Branch has been the best player on their defensive line, especially in the interior (A title I think will be passed to Malcom Brown this year, but a discussion for another day). Branch has already nabbed two Super Bowl rings with the team and just signed on to get at least two more cracks at a third. Branch is one of the best run defenders in the league, making the transition from Vince Wilfork nearly seamless. If Branch is able to maintain his role and talent level, we could see him pass the next guy on the list by the time his New England career is over.
3.) Rob Ninkovich
The man who is still at training camp despite being retired slots in at 3. Nink amassed 46 sacks, 12 forced fumbles, 5 interceptions, and 2 touchdowns during his eight years in New England, and his play went far beyond the numbers. The perfect complementary player, Ninkovich always came with full effort and was rarely off the field, missing only 5 games in eight years. He became an expendable on-field talent in the last 2-3 seasons, but his leadership and locker room presence will be missed.
2.) Mike Vrabel
As far as Bill Belichick free agent signings go, two players are in a tier of their own. How you rank them likely comes down to personal flavor: the long-term consistent starter, or the shorter Patriots career that came at an elite level. Vrabel lost out on the top spot here, but second place is nothing to be ashamed of. 48 sacks and more than 400 tackles over eight years, 3 Super Bowl rings and an undefeated season. 13 forced fumbles, 11 interceptions, 1 defensive touchdown and of course one of the more incredible stats in NFL history: 10 career receptions, 10 career touchdowns. Vrabel was one of the most loved players of the first half of the Patriots dynasty, and seeing him come over from rival Pittsburgh just makes it a tiny bit sweeter.
1.) Rodney Harrison
Rodney Harrison may not have been here for the first Super Bowl, but bringing him in is what helped officially turn the Patriots into a dynasty. Signed in 2003, Harrison started all 32 games in his first two years, making first team all-pro in his first season, second team all-pro in his second, and winning the Super Bowl both years. After that injuries started to take over, playing in only 31 of 64 regular season games during his final four years in New England, one of which was the undefeated season. Harrison was another fan favorite, amassing more than 300 tackles to go with 8 interceptions and 7 forced fumbles, bringing copious amounts of mean and nasty to the Patriots defense.
Honorable Mentions: Rosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas, Mark Anderson
Many of the Patriots key acquisitions during the Belichick era came via trades, but high-impact players were certainly found on the free agent market as well. With so many years to comb through, there’s plenty of room for debate as to who belongs in the top five. Head to the comment section and send your list or anyone you think is missing!