Recently it was announced that longtime Patriots Swiss-army-knife Rob Ninkovich will no longer be playing in the NFL.
In his 8 years with New England, we saw Ninkovich play as a starting caliber linebacker, transition to a stellar defensive end in the trenches, provide as a longtime backup long-snapper, as well as practice and perform with the special teams. Rob was the kind of player coaches dream of having on their team. He’s willing to do whatever the team needs, most importantly showed discipline and an ability to adjust.
His stats had been on a stellar decline in the past few years in a smooth transition towards retirement as the Patriots began cycling the front 7 more often. Last year Rob managed only 32 combined tackles, showing he didn’t have a whole lot left in the tank. Still, just a few years back he put up 91 combined tackles and 8 sacks.
What exactly are the Patriots loosing with the retirement of Rob Ninkovich?
They’re loosing a starting caliber defensive end. That is the clear-cut answer. There is, of course, much more than that. The Patriots are loosing a very valuable member of the defensive line rotation: something they’ve had a lot of success with recently. They are loosing a safety net in having an extra backup linebacker (whether on the practice field or for dropping a man from the line into coverage while on the field). They’re loosing an important veteran presence in the locker room. Lastly, and this one probably hurts Bill Belichick in the heart more than anyone else, they’re loosing a backup long snapper. The ultimate safety net.
How can these key contributions be made up for with the current Patriots squad?
Personally, I feel that the answers are already present. Nink didn’t exactly screw the team over with this announcement.
The defensive line rotation will continue to be deep. The difference here is that the rotation got a whole lot younger. Geneo Grissom is on the last year of his rookie contract, expect him to get a fair amount of playing time with a desire to play hard when he can and earn some cash. Other than that, the guys in the rotation are for the most part rookies. Having a guy available to drop back into coverage from the line is nice, but rarely is it a tactic used by the Patriots. Based on the size and play style of who we have on the defensive line now, I doubt we should expect much of this tactic. Veteran presence still exists on the defensive line. Now, the leadership role is solely in the hands of Interior lineman Alan Branch.
As for replacing the starting position of defensive end, I believe Belichick handled that before the NFL draft when he traded a 6th round pick for Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy. Paired with last year’s standout Trey Flowers, the towering 6-4, 275-pound Kony Ealy makes for a massive duo on the outside of the line. In size, this is an upgrade from Nink. Together, I anticipate the two will make a formidable duo as run-stoppers on the outside, a problem the Patriots have struggled with for far too long. I wouldn’t expect the team to improve too much in the sack category, as the team’s defensive line didn’t improve much from the roster that produced 34 sacks last year.
Replacing Ninkovich with Ealy adjusts the defense just enough so we have a playstyle to look forward to. Ealy hasn’t been a full-time starter before, which could be cause for concern, but again I’d expect the defensive rotation to produce another key player to go along with the two.
There is no doubt that Rob Ninkovich will be missed and should forever be admired by Patriots fans, but for the time being New England has nothing to fear in losing another hero.