Well, in actuality, inside linebacker isn't a new position for Rob Ninkovich. He called that spot home as a member of the Dolphins in 2007 and 2008 prior to his arrival to New England. But the Patriots edge defender has been back off the line at inside linebacker during minicamp this week, often dropping into coverage during 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 practice periods.
The veteran going into his 11th season caught the attention of onlookers during one 7-on-7 session Tuesday when he picked off quarterback Tom Brady.
"I’ve played multiple positions many times in my life," said Ninkovich, whose versatility has allowed him to serve as an emergency long-snapper for the Patriots in the past. "Whatever I’m at, really it’s just to help the team and do whatever I can, and be multiple. I figure that’s one of the strengths of my game is being able to play different positions."
While a talented edge-setter and a consistently productive pass-rusher (he has recorded at least 6.5 sacks in each of the last five seasons), Ninkovich has proven to be adept in coverage at times as well. In 2014, he intercepted Peyton Manning during a regular-season win over the Broncos. In 2012, he picked off Matt Schaub in a Divisional Round win over the Texans.
By playing more as an inside linebacker during mandatory minicamp -- which, like OTAs, is primarily a passing camp -- Ninkovich is getting a little more experience back-pedaling. It's a bit of a change of pace for a player whose job typically asks him to funnel runs back toward the middle of the field or to tear up the field to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
"Trying to learn different positions and being flexible," he said. "For me, it's fun to learn different positions and just try to master inside, outside, end of the line -- whatever I need to do."
Ninkovich is the most experienced player on the Patriots defensive line, and on Wednesday he called himself "the elder" of a defensive end group that includes Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers. Should Ninkovich figure into the mix at inside linebacker, he could provide some depth for a group that features Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Jonathan Freeny.
Odds are the Patriots are looking to keep Ninkovich sharp at a number of different positions should an emergency situation arise. Whatever the reasoning, he's welcomed the inside linebacker reps during minicamp with open arms.
"In this game," he said, "there are many things that are hard to master so trying to learn a different position is a challenge and I embrace that."