‘Tri’ not to cry too much, but for the first time in his Patriot career Rob Ninkovich will miss playing time due to injury. Suffering from a torn tricep earlier this week, Nink will miss 6 weeks of the NFL season. While this is devastating for the Patriots (Nink’s attitude, hustle, and quiet demeanor have been praised by Belichick and fans alike), there’s a gigantic silver lining out of this injury.
There’s no hiding the elephant in the room, Ninkovich is getting older. Past 30, this is the perfect time to look towards a transition at the defensive end position. Those who follow the Patriots know that Nink will pretty much do anything that is asked of him, already switching from outside linebacker to defensive end. Therefore, it’s not out of the question to move Nink around if a younger and faster player was able to move into the starting spot while he’s out.
Don’t get me wrong; Ninkovich is a personal favorite of mine on the Patriots. It’s hard to find a player in this era that works without an ego. To me, he embodies the “Patriot Way”. With that being said, the past few years we have heavily drafted defensive linemen, so let’s play pretend and look at some young bucks on the team. If they fill in well, it wouldn’t be hard to use Nink as a rotational piece around the front 7 (this could help him age well like fine wine).
For all intent and purpose, I’m going to assume Jabaal Sheard is the other starting defensive end (as he should be). With Ninkovich out, it makes sense to start Chris Long. I know I was talking about young bucks, but Long is an experienced defensive end who would be good for multiple downs per drive. Young guys like second year Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom would finally be able to prove themselves. We saw action from Grissom last year, but Trey Flowers was injured throughout the year so it will be nicely to finally see the kid in action.
Defensive tackles Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and Terrance Knighton are assumed to split the most snaps at the position. I’m not sure how Knighton would do at defensive end (usually he’s used as the only d-tackle, so putting him at end would be even more difficult than making him share the line with another tackle). Still, Alan Branch has experience at defensive end, and Malcom Brown is young enough where it might be beneficial to test him out at defensive end every once and a while.
Still, there’s even more defensive lineman that now have a chance to earn a roster spot. Guys like Markus Kuhn, Frank Kearse, Vincent Valentine, Joey Vellano, Anthony Johnson, and Woodrow Hamilton all could transition well to playing time at defensive end.
Now for the most interesting part, it might be a fun idea to try Don’t’a Hightower and Jamie Collins at defensive end. Hightower is an elite run stopper, it’s very likely he could flourish testing out defensive end. Collins, as we know, is a freak athlete. You really think he would be bad at defensive end? He’d be a stud just like he is at linebacker. Don’t get me confused; I’m not suggesting these guys should switch positions permanently. What I am suggesting; however, is that it’s probably a good idea to gain some flexibility and have a versatile defense.
Just imagine a front seven where there’s no telling who the hell is going to be in coverage and who’s rushing the passer. All 7 guys are a question mark until the snap goes off. That’s the kind of defense the Patriots look to have, and having Ninkovich out for a few weeks gives the team an opportunity to emulate exactly what makes him so special; adaptability.