A former New Orleans Saints fifth-rounder and Miami Dolphins practice-squadder, Rob Ninkovich didn’t know what would come of signing with the New England Patriots in August of 2009.
Ninkovich had seen his rookie year in New Orleans end on injured reserve. He had seen himself waived and claimed by Miami to play in four games during his second year. And he had seen himself claimed off Miami’s practice squad by the team that drafted him during his third year.
The product of Joliet Junior College and Purdue University had been tested at defensive end, outside linebacker and long snapper over that span. Only he struggled to stay in one place long enough to see the results. By July of 2009, Ninkovich had been waived again after the Saints signed long snapper Jason Kyle.
But a new place would arrive for Ninkovich only three days later.
It was then that he signed with the Patriots a week into training camp. And while it was uncertain then just how long his contract with the organization would last, the premise behind it was far more certain.
“Really it was because of the opportunity to get on the field,” Ninkovich told 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich on Thursday. “Other places I had some unfortunate injuries that kept me off the field, then other places there were guys in front of me that weren’t moving that kept me off the field.”
Ninkovich would wear No. 45 for the Patriots that preseason. Yet before he could wear No. 50, he would have to find a way to remain the roster as head coach Bill Belichick whittled it from 90 to 53.
He knew that.
“Bill says it every year. He says ‘I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what your salary is, what your draft status is – none of that matters. If you can help us win, you’ll be on the football team,'” Ninkovich explained. “So I took that and ran with it.”
Behind the likes of Adalius Thomas and Tully Banta-Cain, Ninkovich secured his spot and played in 15 games for New England in 2009, after playing in just eight games since 2006. He’d go on to record 23 tackles and one sack along the way that season, after recording six tackles and zero sacks to that juncture in his NFL career.
The presence of the well-traveled fourth-year pro began in the background, but it began.
“I was able to make an impact on special teams, and really just had my role become bigger and bigger until what has been the last few years,” Ninkovich said.
The 6-foot-2, 260-pound left end became an every-game and every-down player for New England in 2011. And after he became a team captain at the beginning of the 2013 campaign, his efforts were recognized as he signed a three-year contract extension worth up to $15 million in the midst of it.
He illustrated why with run discipline and rush technique, versatility and effort. Those facets have kept him off the edge, even when the alignment and players around him have changed.
Ninkovich has gone on to play in all 16 games over his last five seasons with the team. He’s gone on to notch no less than 58 tackles in a season, no less than 1,000 snaps in each of his last four seasons, and less than eight sacks in each of his last three seasons.
He notched more than a sack against the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday.
“It’s been an amazing experience here,” Ninkovich said. “This has been my six year and going on seven, and being a Super Bowl champion – that’s what it’s all about. That’s what all the hard work is for.”
It still hasn’t hit the 31-year-old, once waived four times over his first three years in the league. Perhaps it soon will.
“I still wake up and just kind of pinch myself like, ‘Wow this is real.’ So, it’s been awesome. The parade yesterday, and all the support, the fans were just amazing. We all had a great time. I think my headache is finally going away,” said Ninkovich. “I’m feeling somewhat normal right now. It’s been a great, great experience. I’m just so happy we were able to bring it home.”