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Ever-versatile Rob Ninkovich doesn’t plan on looking (or getting) old anytime soon 07.29.16 at 4:06 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Rob Ninkovich came to camp this week with a freshly shaven mug, ready to look the part of a young playmaker on defense.

Ninkovich, who turned 32 on Feb. 1, is the oldest returning veteran on the defense. He keeps his job by not just maintaining a high level of play on the field but learning to do more on defense as he gets older.

The competitiveness amps up for rookies and veterans alike on Saturday with the start of full pads practice on Saturday.

“We’re starting training camp with pads and I think everyone is focused on getting those pads on and starting training camp, hitting somebody. I’m excited. It’s always good to start real football, and that’s when the pads come on.” Ninkovich said. “That’s the fun part of training camp. Right now, we’re focused on getting better and coming together as a team.”

And staying cool as a team. Ninkovich took one look at the forecast this week and saw temperatures in the 90s and knew one thing that had to go was the full beard.

“It’s hot, it’s hot,” he said. “I saw the temps so I figured I needed to take the beard off. And I look a little younger now. In this business, you don’t want to look too old, right?”

But Ninkovich knows as well as anyone, with age comes experience. And that’s gold to Bill Belichick, as long as your skills remain viable at the NFL level.

In the spring, he worked extensively with the linebacking corps, a role he hasn’t played much of late. That’s because he’s been one of the mainstays of the edge pass rush, along with Chandler Jones. But with Jones gone, it’s up to Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Chris Long to pick up the slack. It’s a role that Ninkovich will likely play again but just in case, Ninkovich could spot a few reps in the second level of the defense if the situation arises.

Why does Belichick trust him to handle both?

“Rob’s got a great feel for the game,” Belichick said. “First of all, he’s got great physical skills. He can run, he’s athletic, he’s strong, so he can hang in there against the big guys but is athletic [enough] to play in space. Whether that be in the kicking game or as an off-the-line linebacker; you can drop him into coverage from the line of scrimmage. Mentally, he sees the game as well. He can move around, do different things. He doesn’t get bogged down. He has the ability to play in coverage, which means you have to see the game a little bit behind you in pass coverage.

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Read More: Lawrence Taylor, New England Patriots, nfl, Rob Ninkovich
Rob Ninkovich on OMF: Deflategate ‘is just stupid’ 07.12.16 at 1:05 pm ET
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Patriots defensive lineman/linebacker Rob Ninkovich and former wide receiver Wes Welker joined Ordway, Merloni & Fauria on Tuesday morning as part of their promotion of Dr. Robert Leonard and hair loss treatment. To hear the interview, go to the OM&F audio on demand page.

As is with most interviews with Patriots players, Deflategate came up.

“Honestly, no, we don’t talk about it,” Ninkovich said. “It was last year — what was it? Two years ago? How long ago was it? It’s something that you can’t really think about, talk about because it’s not going to help you.”

Added Ninkovich: “Really for me, I’m not a quarterback, I’m not a receiver. I don’t know. The whole thing is just stupid. There are a lot of things going on that shouldn’t last for two years, three years, four years, I don’t know.”

Welker was seen spending a few days with the Ravens this summer coaching. He admitted he’s interested, but doesn’t know if he wants to make the commitment because of the time involved.

“Part of of me does and then there’s part of me that is just like [oof],” Welker said. “We just had twins and they are 11 months old. That is a big factor too.”

The former Patriots receiver has done some media work in the past few months and said it’s something he would like to get into down the road.

Read More: Rob Ninkovich, Wes Welker,
Rob Ninkovich takes pride in being versatile, playing different positions 06.08.16 at 4:04 pm ET
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Rob Ninkovich takes pride at being able to play multiple positions. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

Rob Ninkovich takes pride at being able to play multiple positions. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO — Rob Ninkovich has been a member of the Patriots since 2009, so he knows how much the Patriots value versatility.

With a number of defensive ends on the roster and perhaps a shortage at middle linebacker, Ninkovich has seen some time at both inside and outside linebacker during the first two minicamp sessions.

Being a team-first player, the 32-year-old noted it’s all about the team.

“I’ve played multiple positions many times in my life. Whatever I am at, it’s just to help the team and do whatever I can,” Ninkovich said. “Be multiple. I figure that is one of the strengths of my game is playing multiple positions.”

Added Ninkovich: “For me it’s being an overall football player in every aspect of the game. Whatever it is helping the team. Just trying and learn different positions and being flexible. For me, it’s fun to learn different positions and try and master inside, outside, end of the line, whatever I need to do.”

Learning a new position is always challenging, but Ninkovich is up for it.

“Of course,” he said. “Again, there’s many things hard to master. Trying to learn different positions is a challenge and I embrace that.”

Currently, behind Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower at the linebacker spot the Patriots have Jonathan Freeny, Ramon Humber, Elandon Roberts, Rufus Johnson, Shea McClellin, Kevin Snyder and Kamu Grugier-Hill on the depth chart.

After the troubles the team had last year with injuries to Collins and Hightower, the team might be looking for insurance with a proven, veteran player. And with Ninkovich’s experience at being versatile — most notably long-snapping in 2014 — it shouldn’t be a huge adjustment.

Read More: Rob Ninkovich,
Iron Man: Rob Ninkovich looks to continue impressive run of durability at defensive end 05.20.16 at 1:46 pm ET
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Rob Ninkovich meets the media Thursday at Gillette. ( photo)

Rob Ninkovich meets the media Thursday at Gillette. ( photo)

FOXBORO — Rob Ninkovich isn’t an overly superstitious guy, but when he was asked Thursday about his consecutive games played streak, he shot a mock-serious look at a reporter.

“Let’s not talk about that,” said the 32-year-old defensive end, who is set to start his 11th year in the league — and eighth with the Patriots — this fall.

Sorry, Rob. It’s gotten to a point where it can’t be ignored anymore: The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder, who has been with the Patriots since 2009, has now racked up 81 straight regular-season starts with New England, second-best in the league among all defensive ends. And he’s played in a total of 102 straight regular-season games with the Patriots, third-best in the league at his position. (Julius Peppers is tops in both categories with 128 straight games played and 102 consecutive starts.)

He acknowledges he’s probably a little fresher than most defensive ends because he didn’t play much at all in his first three years in the league — he played in a total of eight games with the Dolphins and Saints before signing with the Patriots in 2009. That’s why he said he subtracts three years from his career.

But the streak remains a point of pride.

“I like knowing that I can continue to contribute and help the team,” said Ninkovich, who has 42 career sacks, including 14.5 the last two years. “I do understand the business aspect of the game, so that’s exactly what I have to do: I have to help the team, contribute to win, and if I can continue to do that I’ll stay on the field.

“Other than that, I think that there’s a little bit of luck involved with that, because the first three years I couldn’t stay on the field,” he said of the streak. “Let’s just continue to work hard. I feel really good right now and just look forward to year 11.”

Ninkovich has been around long enough to know he’s not surprised when there’s roster movement. That includes the franchise decision to ship fellow pass-rushing defensive end Chandler Jones off to Arizona for offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper and a draft pick. Ninkovich and Jones had been teammates for four seasons, and on Thursday, Ninkovich called Jones “a really good football player.” But he seems enthused about the arrival of veteran free agent Chris Long.

“Chris is a great guy. He’s excited to be here and to just jump into the Patriot way. I know previous location was tough for him, so I just said to him, ‘Hey man, you come here and get to work and we’ll start winning football games.’

“Since then we’ve kind of hit it off. He’s a great guy,” added Ninkovich. “He’s definitely been great so far. It’s fun when you can learn from other guys, other pros. He’s been doing it a long time as well and he’s happy to be here so we’re happy to have him.”

Read More: chandler jones, Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich,
5 positional battles looming for Patriots this offseason 05.05.16 at 9:26 am ET
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Cyrus Jones could contribute on defense and special teams as a rookie. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Cyrus Jones could contribute on defense and special teams as a rookie. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Training camp is still a ways off — roughly three months — but with the moves the Patriots have made this spring in free agency and the draft, the lines have been draw for some clear positional battles. At this point on the calendar, here’s our pick for the top 5 positional battles looming in Foxboro:

Outside wide receiver: Draft picks Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien join an already crowded picture on the outside, as they are added to a conversation that includes (in no particular order) Nate Washington, Keshawn Martin and Aaron Dobson, as well as back-end-of-the-roster types like Chris Harper. Complicating things are the versatility of guys like veteran Danny Amendola and newcomer Chris Hogan, two pass-catchers who have also spent time inside and outside the numbers over the course of their careers. With the departure of Brandon LaFell this past offseason, the opportunities will be there for someone to make an impact as a moderate to occasional deep threat in the receiving game. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up over the course of the spring and summer sessions to claim the gig.

Nickel corner: The Patriots put several different candidates through their paces at this position last year, but never really seemed to find a long-term solution. (Frequently, New England relied on the position versatility of the likes of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon as safeties in coverage, which managed to offset some of the issues.) The selection of Cyrus Jones will put him smack dab in the middle of the action this spring, and given his body of work, his pedigree and his skill set, it suggests he could have the inside track on a handful of other candidates. (As a collegian, Jones also has experience on the outside. That, as well as his special teams value, make him one to watch this spring.) Justin Coleman and E.J. Biggers could be the primary competition for Jones at the position.

Backup defensive end: The likelihood is that the Patriots will utilize Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard as the primary end-of-the-line edge types, but there will be some chances to fill in at that spot as a backups. Newcomer Frank Kearse and youngsters Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Rufus Johnson will all square off in the fight for playing time to serve as the primary backups. One of our favorites in this fight is Johnson, an intriguing but raw prospect who flashed all sorts of potential before he went on season-ending injured reserve last year.

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Read More: Chris Long, Cyrus Jones, Devin Lucien, Frank Kearse
Following Tuesday’s moves, resetting Patriots depth chart at defensive end/outside linebacker 03.15.16 at 9:44 pm ET
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Former Rams defensive end Chris Long reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the Patriots on Tuesday. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Former Rams defensive end Chris Long reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the Patriots on Tuesday. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

With the Tuesday trade of Chandler Jones and acquisition of veteran free agent Chris Long, it’s worth taking a look at how the Patriots depth chart looks when it comes to defensive end/edge types right now.

Chris Long: The 6-foot-4, 275-pounder out of Virginia, who is set to turn 31 later this month, has managed to carve out an impressive career for himself: in eight seasons (all with the Rams), he has 54.5 career sacks, including four years where he ended with at least 8.5 sacks. Released by the Rams in a salary purge earlier in the offseason, it will be fascinating to see how he fits into the New England defense and what Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick might have in store for him. Is he still an every down player? How would that mesh with the current lineup of edge rushers? Or is he more of a situational pass rusher at this stage of his career, someone who would thrive purely on third down and other long yardage situations? (An Andre Carter for a new generation.) It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Rob Ninkovich: The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder is going to be one of the oldest players on the roster going into the 2016 season — he’s currently just one of four guys on the roster who have been in the league for at least 10 seasons — and it’s reasonable to wonder how much longer he can continue at his current pace. One of the sturdier players in recent league history (his current string of 102 straight starts is second-best in the league among all defensive ends), he’s coming off a year where he started all 16 regular-season games and finished third on the team with 6.5 sacks. Even with the acquisition of Long, the 31-year-old figures to enter the year as the unquestioned leader of the DE/OLB types.

Jabaal Sheard: The best free agent deal in the league last season, Sheard had eight sacks off the edge in 13 regular-season games for New England. The 6-foot-2, 254-pounder, who will turn 27 in May, also held up well against the run. If the depth chart stays as is, it’s reasonable to assume that Sheard will be leaned on heavily in 2016 to fill the same role he had last year. For what it’s worth, Sheard is entering the second year of a two-year, $11 million contract he signed prior to the start of 2015. If he produces as the same level in 2016, the Patriots will be able to boast of getting (relatively) the same level of production out of Sheard that they likely would have gotten from Jones, but at a reduced rate.

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Read More: Chris Long, Geneo Grissom, Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line 02.21.16 at 12:29 pm ET
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Jabaal Sheard provided a boost for the Patriots pass rush in 2015. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Jabaal Sheard provided a boost for the Patriots pass rush in 2015. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand and what figures to be the strengths and weaknesses for the team at that position going forward. We’ve looked at  the quarterbacks, secondary, the running backs, the linebackers, the wide receivers and offensive line. Now, it’s the defensive line:

Depth chart (stats per coaches game film):

Defensive linemen: Alan Branch (33 tackles, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, 2 forced fumbles), Malcom Brown (48 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 quarterback hits), Dominique Easley (15 tackles, 2 sacks, 10 quarterback hits), Trey Flowers, Ishmaa’lly Kitchen, Sealver Siliga (28 tackles), Joe Vellano, Akiem Hicks (22 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Chris Jones.

Edge rushers: Jabal Sheard (37 tackles, 8 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, 4 forced fumbles), Chandler Jones (44 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, 4 forced fumbles), Rob Ninkovich (51 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 6 passes defensed), Geneo Grissom (5 tackles, 1 sack).

Overview: There were plenty of question marks for the Patriots’ defensive line heading into the first year of the post-Vince Wilfork era, and while there were moments where they stumbled, all in all, it was a successful season. Working with an elite run-stopper like linebacker Dont’a Hightower, New England was 11th in the league in fewest yards per carry allowed (4.0) and ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (98.8). While part of the pressure was due to some good team defense on the back end by the defensive backs, the group was also consistent when it came to getting after the passer with 49 sacks, sixth-most in team history. (The 2015 team fell just short of becoming the first 50-sack team of the Bill Belichick era.)

There are questions about the group going forward — namely, the fact that the team will have to make some difficult personnel decisions in the next 18 months, including Chandler Jones, Sheard and Ninkovich. (The conversation around Jones’ future with the Patriots became far more complicated after this late-season incident.) And health will always be an issue with any positional grouping. But right now, this is a sturdy bunch with a nice mixture of veterans and young faces that appear to be well-positioned for success in 2016 and beyond.

Who will stay? You will basically see the same group in 2016 as you did in 2015, albeit with a few tweaks. Akiem Hicks is the Patriots’ highest-rated free agent, and could draw some attention on the open market after a year where he surprised many with his play. But the nucleus of the defensive one figures to be the same heading into next year as it was this season.

Who will go? If he gets the level of interest that many believe he’s capable of generating, Hicks is a possibility to depart — the 6-foot-5, 318-pounder, who arrived in a trade with the Saints last season, opened some eyes. As we referenced earlier, the Patriots are scheduled to face some big questions along the defensive line at the end of the 2016 season: right now, Sheard, Ninkovich, Branch and Chandler Jones are all among those who have expiring deals after 2016. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots address one of these situations some time in the next six months.

By the numbers: The Patriots have a streak of 29 straight games with at least one sack, the longest streak in the NFL. The last time the Patriots did not have a sack was vs. Oakland on Sept. 21, 2014.

Read More: 2016 position-by-position breakdown, Akiem Hicks, Alan Branch, chandler jones
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