FOXBORO -- The Patriots were without the de-facto leader of the defensive-end group when training camp practice opened on Thursday, and his absence was felt in particular by the younger players he shared the field with throughout the spring.
Fellow defensive end Kony Ealy was absent for practice as well, meaning that rookies like Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise may have seen more time than they otherwise would have had all veterans been available.
But it wasn't just Ninkovich's leftover snaps that made his void so noticeable, Rivers explained after the session.
"Rob, he helps me out. He's a teacher," River said. "He's a helper. He loves to help and serve younger guys . . .
"Rob always, as soon as he's done with his rep, he comes around and talks to us when we're not taking one."
Ninkovich is far and away the most experienced defensive end on the Patriots roster. He's 33 years old, he's headed into his 12th season, and he's racked up 46 sacks over the course of his career. Along with Trey Flowers, he was presumed by many to be one of the top ends on the depth chart in New England.
It sounds trite, but as Rivers alluded, without Ninkovich on Thursday, the group was down a coach on the field. It's a role he's warmed up to with little prodding. Veterans helped him when he was younger, so why shouldn't he do the same now that he's part of the old guard?
"You try to help the younger guys because they remember that," Ninkovich told the Providence Journal’s Mark Daniels. "When I was younger, the guys that helped you, you appreciated, as opposed to the guys worrying about you taking their job. It’s silly. I know my job is going to be taken. I understand that. I don’t lose sleep over it because I’ve had such a successful career."
He added: "Once you get to an age, you’re like ‘All right, I’m going to help these guys and give them everything I know to help them out to give them the best possible chance at being successful. It’s almost like you’re returning the favor to the football gods."
Those sentiments came as little surprise to Rivers, this year's third-round pick out of Youngstown State.
"It says a lot about his character," Rivers explained. "Rob's a great guy. Awesome dude. Awesome player. With that job thing, that's up to the coaches. That has nothing to do with us. But as far as us being teammates, it's a blessing for us to be teammates. He's an awesome guy. That just says a lot about the type of guy he is and the type of character he has."
It's unclear why Ninkovich was not present on Thursday, although it's been reported by Boston Sports Journal's Greg Bedard that his absence was due to "personal reasons." Should he be out for an extended period of time, not only will the Patriots be without one of their most experienced and durable players, they'll also be without one of their best teachers and sounding boards for the young players at a position where savvy matters.
Without Ninkovich and Ealy on Thursday, Geneo Grissom joined Rivers, Wise and Flowers as one of the players who saw plenty of work on the edge.