One of the key players towards the second run of the New England Patriots dynasty originally was a scrap heap pickup. We remember Rob Ninkovich as a versatile edge defender with a nose for turnovers and big stops, but he didn’t start off as that guy: before arriving in New England, Ninkovich was very much an underdog. He didn’t get any Division-I offers out of high school and played two years at the JuCo level before signing with Purdue and playing for two more years. Purdue produced some notable edge rusher prospects such as Rosevelt Colvin, Ryan Kerrigan, Cliff Avril, and Ray Edwards over the years. Nink didn’t play until his senior year, in which he produced 48 tackles, 17 TFL, and 8.0 sacks.
Entering the league as a fifth-round pick in the 2006 Draft by the New Orleans Saints, Nink bounced around between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins for his first three years in the league. In those three years, Ninkovich struggled to adjust to the NFL and had a severe knee injury in 2007 that put his career in jeopardy. After working to add long snapping to his repertoire, which he would do in one 2014 regular season game, he hoped to make the Saints roster in 2009. That did not happen, as the Saints would release Ninkovich in August 2009.
The Patriots would pick him up not too long after on a one-year deal, which would kick-start an eight-year run and a pair of Super Bowl championships (XLIX and LI).
One of the issues that Ninkovich experienced was that he entered the league when the majority of the teams operated off a 4-3 base scheme. He was a tweener at 6-foot-2, 260 pounds with decent athleticism, where he was too small to be a defensive end and not suited for an off-ball linebacker role. The lack of scheme fit wasn’t an issue with the Patriots, who have turned players with similar skill sets into key players. Ninkovich would overcome the odds and make it to the 53-man roster, where he played primarily special teams in 2009.
In 2010, he would crack the starting lineup as a 3-4 outside linebacker. That year, he recorded 4.0 sacks, intercepted a pair of passes, knocked down three more, and recovered three fumbles. After proving to be a reliable contributor on defense in 2010, his role increased dramatically to an every-down player on the edge. From 2011-15, Nink would start all 92 regular and post-season games and rarely ever came off the field.
Over that time period he recorded 35 sacks, forced nine fumbles, recovered 11 fumbles, and intercepted three passes. Between 2012 and 2014, only two players recorded at least 8.0 sacks in each season: J.J. Watt and Rob Ninkovich. One of them is likely headed for the NFL Hall of Fame, the other will probably have to wait a while before getting in the Patriots Hall of Fame.
As a starter for the Patriots, Ninkovich had a sixth sense of when to force a stop. Whether it was a third down sack, grabbing a critical interception, or falling on a loose football, the Patriots biggest stops involved No. 50. Those adventures include a sack trick (sack, fumble, and recovery) against the New York Jets to seal off an overtime win, a third down sack of Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, and his strip sack of Tim Tebow to help the Patriots race out to a big lead in the Divisional Round of the 2011 playoffs.
I can name a lot more plays, but those were the ones that I remembered the most. As a result of his under the radar play-making abilities, the Patriots would turn seven postseason trips with him as the starter on the left edge player into three Super Bowl appearances and two championships.
In eight years with New England, Ninkovich had a productive career and will have his place in the Patriots Hall of Fame. In 140 regular and postseason games with the team, Nink recorded 50.0 sacks, intercepted six passes, forced 13 fumbles, recovered 16, and picked up a pair of defensive scores. From 2009-16, Ninkovich is one of only three players to record more than 45 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries, and five interceptions. The other two players are Jared Allen and Julius Peppers, both of whom will get serious NFL Hall of Fame consideration.
His contributions got him named to the Patriots All-Decade Team for the 2010s as an outside linebacker.