A player’s NFL impact can be years in the making.
A decade ago, a then-19-year-old Ninkovich was playing football at Joliet Junior College and helping his father, an iron worker, hang beams during the summer. That experience served as incentive for Ninkovich to continue his education.
He did so, enrolling at Purdue University in the fall of 2004, where he notched eight sacks as a reserve on the Boilermakers football team.
Ninkovich parlayed that reserve role into a starting role as a senior in 2005, amassing 48 tackles, another eight sacks, a forced fumble and two interceptions. And the following April, he was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the fifth round of the 2006 NFL draft.
But after just a year which consisted of three games and a trip to injured reserve, Ninkovich was waived by New Orleans and claimed by Miami. Then, after a year in Miami which consisted of four games, the 6’2”, 260-pounder was waived, stashed on the practice squad as a converted outside linebacker before getting re-signed by the Saints.
Ninkovich’s second stint with New Orleans was short-lived, however, as he was unable to survive the roster crunch despite trying his hand as a long snapper.
Three seasons. Seven games. Six tackles. Ninkovich’s stat sheet grew when the Patriots signed him in August of 2009.
Since then, No. 50 has emerged from special teams to play a pivotal part in the New England defensive front. Over four years in Foxborough, Mass., Ninkovich has accumulated 217 tackles, 19.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries and four interceptions.
He may live in the shadows across the line from 2012 first-round pick Chandler Jones, but Ninkovich is more than just the “other” Patriots defensive end.
He’s a man of impact.
The Pass Rush
Ninkovich’s eight sacks last year led the Patriots. His 38 quarterback pressures—combined sacks, hits and hurries—was good for 28th among his positional counterparts, per Pro Football Focus’s signature statistics (subscription required).
He created pressure from the 7-technique, the 9-technique, both the strong side and the weak side, and he even did so from a two-point stance.
Case in point: Week 15 versus the San Francisco 49ers.
Ninkovich posted up as an outside linebacker in New England’s 3-4 sub-package, hiding in the peripherals of San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley.
Off the snap, quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped back for a play-action fake. Meanwhile, Ninkovich swung outside, causing an overreaction on the part of Staley.
That overreaction played into the hands of Ninkovich, who extended his arms out and cut back inside where the lane had opened.
With Staley forced to recover, Ninkovich took control of the B-gap and made his way into the backfield to pursue a scrambling Kaepernick. And after running outside the pocket, Ninkovich brought him down for a sack.
Ninkovich doesn’t have great speed, but he is savvy. He knows how to manipulate and reap the benefits of an offensive tackle’s adjustments. For all intents and purposes, he gets the most out of his ability.
The Run Defense
While Ninkovich’s production versus the pass was evident in 2012, statistics indicate that he was actually a better run defender.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he logged 281 run snaps and registered a stop 7.5 percent of the time, which was eighth best among all 4-3 defensive ends. Despite the fact he missed seven tackles, Ninkovich was still largely efficient, earning credit for 24 run tackles and seven assists.
Against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11, his prowess versus the run was on display.
Off the edge in a two-down lineman front, Ninkovich was essentially facing a “12” personnel Indianapolis offense with one tailback, one tight end and one wide receiver playing H-back.
At the moment quarterback Andrew Luck snapped the ball, Ninkovich slipped inside the right shoulder of tight end Dwayne Allen. In doing so, he clogged up the C-gap.
By the time Luck handed off to halfback Donald Brown, who was set to run off-tackle, there was no tackle to run off of.
Ninkovich’s patience through the opening expended critical seconds off Brown’s carry. In turn, the back was halted for a two-yard loss.
The 29-year-old’s unsuspecting success in regard to stopping running backs makes you think he may not be just a situational pass-rusher after all.
The Nose for the Football
There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time to make plays in critical moments.
Last campaign, Ninkovich always seemed to be.
The Illinois native ranked first among Patriots defenders with five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in 2012.
In the Week 7 overtime tilt against the New York Jets, the Patriots cradled a three-point lead. New York, though, had a chance to win the game.
Ninkovich played an integral role in ending that chance.
With the Patriots playing a front-six formation, Ninkovich stood up outside right tackle. And because of the Jets’ “11” personnel, Ninkovich had just one man to beat.
As QB Mark Sanchez collected the snap and went through his reads, Ninkovich curled outside Austin Howard.
Ninkovich ran the arc right past his man, just as Jermaine Cunningham permeated the interior. Cunningham struck Sanchez low; Ninkovich struck him high.
The ball was jarred loose, and Ninkovich was there to leap on it. A 2nd-and-10 turned into a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
It also turned into a win.
Rob does a good job for us. He made a big play on the running play there, came inside and made the hit in the overtime series and obviously the strip. He’s around the ball and always seems to play well against the Jets. He’s got a lot of big plays against those guys.
He's hard to keep off the field.
Whether he’s got his hand in the dirt, is standing up off the line of scrimmage, playing on special teams or snapping the football, Ninkovich has tried it all. Nevertheless, he knows the line between success and failure is a thin one.
His willingness to play wherever is a byproduct of that.
So are his reps.
Ninkovich participated in a grand tally of 1,050 plays last season, cites Football Outsiders. Not only did that slot him first among all Patriots defensive linemen, that slotted him sixth most among all NFL defensive linemen.
Now Ninkovich may not run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. He may not be in the mold of a prototypical 6’6”, 270-pound Patriots bookend. He may not make every tackle in his gap. He may not even be best suited as a 4-3 down lineman.
But what you get from Ninkovich is 100 percent, all the time.
For Belichick and the Patriots, that’s plenty enough.