Best of Belichick Era: Number 21 -- Rob Ninkovich


Best of Belichick Era: Number 21 -- Rob Ninkovich

I'm spending 50 days ranking the top 50 players of the Bill Belichick Era, from No. 50 down to No. 1. (Click here for a criteria on how I made my selections.)


Today we reach . . . .

Years With Patriots: 2009-present
Games: 95
Playoff Games: 12
Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)

Ask a bar full of Pats fans to name the three greatest plays of the Patriots’ Super Bowl win over Seattle and you probably won’t hear the name Rob Ninkovich mentioned. But every great play of the final quarter was set up in large part by a Ninkovich play with 14:19 left.

The Patriots trailed, 24-14, and Seattle had the ball at its own 39 facing a third-and-7. This was a must-have stop. Ninkovich, coming off the right side of the Seattle offensive line, came up with an eight-yard sack of the elusive Russell Wilson. The Seahawks punted and the Patriots put together two touchdown drives (and another white-knuckle defensive stop) to win their fourth Super Bowl.

More obscure from the same game? Third-and-one at the Patriots 8 with 11:51 remaining in the third quarter. Ninkovich stuffs Marshawn Lynch for no gain. Seattle settles for a field goal and has a little something to think about for later in the game.

You forget about Ninkovich sometimes, partly because he’s such a fixture. He’s missed one game since 2009. He played 95 percent of the Patriots defensive snaps in 2013, 94 percent in 2014. Defensive ends aren’t supposed to be able to do that. But Ninkovich does. And every year, you can write him down for 8.0 sacks (his total the past three seasons), close to 80 tackles, and fumble forces/recoveries. In 2012, Nink created five fumbles and recovered four, both near the top of the NFL.

The players who got New England’s early success started get a lot of love on this list. But we can’t overstate their accomplishments at the expense of the later guys. For instance, Willie McGinest -- who we still haven’t gotten to -- had 38.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries, 3 interceptions and 317 tackles from 2000 through 2005. From 2009 through 2014, Ninkovich had 35.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries, 5 interceptions and 385 tackles. Different positions and they were different ages at the time, but you get the point (I hope).

No flash. All substance. That’s been Ninkovich.

Protoypical Patriots: What they want on the O-line - Smart, tough, athletic

Protoypical Patriots: What they want on the O-line - Smart, tough, athletic

Before the Super Bowl, Dante Scarnecchia spoke to a small group of reporters and laid out exactly what the Patriots look for in their offensive linemen.

"We covet three things when we look for offensive linemen," Scarnecchia said. "They have to be smart, they have to be tough, and they have to be athletic enough."

PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS - Previously in the series:

While there's certainly more to it than that, those are the basics. Check those off the list, and you'll have a chance. Someone like Cole Croston -- an undrafted rookie out of Iowa -- was able to spend the entirety of the 2017 season on the active roster with the Patriots because he met New England's criteria. 

The Patriots have a clear need for depth at offensive tackle after Nate Solder signed with the Giants, but are there players who can come in to be an immediate stopgap on the edge? If so, who are they? And if not, which developmental prospects could be fits?

Here are some names to keep in mind on draft weekend. These "prototypes" have what the Patriots typically look for in terms of size and athleticism up front:


I've been told by evaluators that when it comes to this class of tackles, McGlinchey might be the only one who is truly ready for regular work in the NFL. That doesn't mean others can't develop into starters -- and do so quickly. But it sounds like McGlinchey is already there, particularly in the running game. He has the requisite size that the Patriots look for. Though he's not one of the top athletes in the class (his 28.5-inch vertical is a little under what the Patriots often like), he seems athletic enough (his broad jump, for instance, was 105 inches, which meets New England's criteria). That he comes from a pro-style blocking scheme could also make him a quick fit. Scarnecchia attended McGlinchey's pro day.  


Length. Athleticism. Experience in a varied offense. Miller seems to have just about everything the Patriots look for. There seem to be some technique issues that Scarnecchia will have to work with to get Miller ready to go, but he's physically impressive. His 40 time (4.95 seconds) is more than quick enough. Same goes for his 31.5-inch vertical and his 121-inch broad jump. The jumps are significant because they show explosiveness, which for linemen -- who have to operate with force in tight spaces and explode out of their stances in pass protection -- is important. Miller told me at the combine he was scheduled to meet with New England. 


Williams has been deemed a guard by some because his size isn't necessarily ideal to play on the outside. And if he were drafted by the Patriots to play tackle, he'd be on the smaller side. But at 6-5 he's about the same height as Matt Light, and his arms (33 inches) are just a hair shorter than Sebastian Vollmer's (33 1/4). Athletically, he hits every standard. His 40 (almost five seconds flat) and jumps (34-inch vertical, 112-inch broad jump) were all very good. Belichick has a good relationship with Texas coach Tom Herman, and Williams reportedly paid the Patriots a visit during the pre-draft process. 

BRIAN O'NEILL, PITT, 6-7, 297 

O'Neill, like Miller, is another athletic prospect who will need some time. The former tight end is a little light compared to players the Patriots have drafted in the past. (Even Tony Garcia, whose knock against him was that he was light, weighed 302 pounds at the combine last year.) But athletically there are some eye-popping traits. He ran a 4.82-second 40-yard dash and had a 7.14-second three-cone drill. His jumps were good but not out-of-this-world (28.5 vertical, 107-inch broad). 


How much does arm length matter? If the answer for the Patriots is "a heckuva lot" then Smith may not be deemed a fit. His arms measured 32 1/4 inches, which would be shortest for any tackle they've ever drafted. Otherwise? He's just about what they're looking for. Trusted player in the SEC. Tough. Good height. Good athlete. He ran a 5.22-second 40, benched 35 reps, jumped 33.5 inches and broad-jumped 113 inches. 


Crosby measured in at 6-4 and one-half inch, earning him the "6-5" listing by a hair. And his arm-length (32 1/4 inches) are short. But athletically he's solid -- 30-inch vertical, 105-inch broad jump -- and he's considered to have good toughness. Late on Day 2 could be the right time to pounce if he's available. 


Jones is short but his arm length (35 1/8 inches) might make up for what he lacks in height. Athletically he's not outstanding. His 40-yard dash time is slower than what the Patriots typically like (5.5 seconds), and his jumps were nothing to write home about (24-inch vertical, 102-inch broad jump). But the Ohio State connection, where the coaching staff has obvious connections to New England and the offense is relatively balanced, could help him get drafted in the middle rounds.