NFL

Ninkovich finds niche with Patriots

Brian Billick previews the AFC Championship Game rematch between the Patriots and Ravens.
Brian Billick previews the AFC Championship Game rematch between the Patriots and Ravens.
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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass.

Rob Ninkovich invokes memories of storied New England Patriots linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi with his penchant for game-changing plays.

The New Orleans Saints didn’t think he was good enough to play defense for their team.

How could two franchises — successful ones at that — look at the same player and have completely opposite talent assessments?

It’s another example of how beauty is in the eye of the beholder (we are talking football beauty, by the way, with Ninkovich currently sporting a grotesque black "playoff" beard).

The rosters for New England and Baltimore entering Sunday’s AFC Championship Game feature plenty of long shots and undrafted players who made it, like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. But what happened with Ninkovich is especially curious considering the quality job New Orleans head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have done with personnel decisions.

In four seasons with the Patriots, Ninkovich has registered 223 tackles, 19.5 sacks, four interceptions and five forced fumbles as a linebacker and defensive end (his current position). He led New England in sacks this season with eight and remains a core member of the special-teams unit.

A 41-28 victory over Houston in last Sunday’s second-round playoff matchup was a Ninkovich showcase. He baited Texans quarterback Matt Schaub into a third-quarter interception by sliding over from his left end spot and dropping into coverage in the middle of the field. The Patriots converted the turnover into a touchdown to take a 31-13 lead.

Ninkovich wasn’t done, either. He recovered an onside kick late in the fourth quarter to snuff any chance for a Texans comeback. Ninkovich finished with four tackles (including one for a loss), two passes defensed and a quarterback hurry.

“He is a tough, smart player and in the right spot at the right time,” Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker said. “There is something to be said for that. When he gets the opportunities he makes the plays.”

In New Orleans, Ninkovich ran out of opportunities to show what he could do — and the Patriots couldn’t be more grateful.

A 2006 fifth-round pick out of Purdue, Ninkovich appeared as a reserve in three games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He was waived in training camp the following season and landed with Miami. Ninkovich spent 1½ nondescript years there before being re-signed by New Orleans off the Dolphins’ practice squad late in the 2008 campaign.

Just before the start of the 2009 preseason, Ninkovich said he was told the only way he was going to stick with the Saints was as a long snapper. He had handled the duties at Purdue and Joliet (Ill.) Junior College, but developing this skill for a full-time living was something Ninkovich had no interest in trying to pursue.

“I looked at them and said, ‘Well if that’s my only chance, I guess I had better just start snapping,’” Ninkovich told FOXSports.com after Thursday’s practice at Gillette Stadium.

“Certain opportunities have to open up for you. At that time, I didn’t have the opportunity to be a defensive player. I was never going to quit on it. That was my opportunity at the time. I had to take it. I couldn’t say no and ask for my release or anything like that. That’s not in my DNA.”

The Saints didn’t immediately respond to an email sent by FOXSports.com seeking comment from Loomis.

Mercifully for Ninkovich, the long snapping competition in New Orleans ended before it began. Ninkovich was waived when the Saints signed veteran Jason Kyle and he quickly signed with New England.

Ninkovich has never asked the Patriots what they saw in him. But it’s clear – Ninkovich is the kind of smart hybrid player that head coach Bill Belichick loves.

Ninkovich began as a linebacker when New England fielded a 3-4 defense but made a successful switch to 4-3 end this season. At 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, Ninkovich is strong enough to hold up against the run while still being able to effectively rush the passer and contribute in zone coverage.

“It starts with his skill set,” Belichick said earlier this week. “Rob is a good athlete. He has good body control, balance (and) hand-eye coordination in addition to being a strong guy that’s fast and has good quickness. If he has to drop into coverage as a defensive end, he can fall back on some of the things he’s learned as a linebacker. His versatility compiled with his instinctiveness comes together in favorable form.”

Ninkovich believes he began making a positive impression in his first day of Patriots practice.

“I was training in New Orleans so it was 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity,” he said. “I came here and it felt like spring. It was 85 and everybody thought it was warm but I was running circles around everybody.

“I had a great training camp and was able to earn the respect of the coaches and everyone here. I didn’t really know the plays yet. I had just come here and they were having their first preseason game. I was told, ‘Just go make plays.’ I can do that.”

Ninkovich has done it time and again. Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater called him “Johnny-on-the-Spot” for his uncanny knack of finding the football.

Ninkovich is growing weary of the “right place, right time” compliments because such praise can infer there is more luck than skill involved.

“That kind of gets old when you do it multiple times,” he said. “I feel like I play the game the way it should be. I play hard. You’re never going to see me not give everything I’ve got on a play. If that’s chasing a guy down, I’m not giving up. That’s the way I am.”

That fortitude is evident by Ninkovich now being one game away from a return to New Orleans – not to face the Saints but to play in Super Bowl XLVII.

“Coming into the league, I was trying to do my best to make an impact on kickoffs and kickoff returns and make my way onto the field on defense,” he said. “Looking back now, I’m very blessed to have the opportunity to come here.”

Tagged: Patriots, Saints, Texans, Rob Ninkovich

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