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BOSTON (CBS) – As a longtime anchor of New England’s offensive line, ex-Patriots center Dan Koppen was in the role of a co-host last Saturday night, sharing the air with his partner Zig Fracassi and their guest, this broadcaster, on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
We were discussing the following afternoon’s encounter of Koppen’s former team and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when I was asked about the strong performance to date of New England’s defense. Naming names, I cited several early-season standouts.
At the mere mention of Rob Ninkovich, Koppen interjected: “He’s always in the right place, isn’t he?”
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Punctuation aside, Koppen’s was more statement than question. And though spoken specifically about Ninkovich’s on-field positioning, as we soon discovered, it’s a sentiment held by the Patriots and player alike.
Here in New England, Ninkovich is in exactly the right place.
On Sunday, shortly before he helped keep the Bucs out of the end zone in a 23-3 victory, news broke of a contract extension for Ninkovich. He reportedly signed a three-year deal for $15 million, including $8.5 million guaranteed.
“I wanted to be here and I knew that this was the team that gave me my opportunity to even play, so it worked great for both sides,” Ninkovich told a group of reporters on Monday. “I’m happy to be here and happy to keep winning games.”
“Anytime you do a contract, there’s an agreement on both sides,” his head coach Bill Belichick said. “Both sides want and agree to get it done. That’s where you have a deal. That was the case in this situation and I’m glad it worked out.”
Why each would seek common financial ground is easily understood.
The Patriots keep a versatile, durable and reliable defender under their control through 2016. Ninkovich is equally comfortable and, more important, competent in the three-point stance of a defensive end or upright as a linebacker. His adaptability allows New England to remain flexible, shifting schemes between the 4-3 and 3-4.
He’s started every contest the last three years and 51 of the Pats’ last 57 games overall since 2010. And to Koppen’s point, Ninkovich is consistently in the right place at the wrong time for opponents. No one in the NFL has more fumble recoveries than his 10 the last three seasons.
There were many times, however, others thought him out of place.
Ninkovich, who’d taken the junior college route to Purdue of the Big Ten, was drafted by New Orleans as a fifth-rounder in 2010. Three games into his rookie season, in late September against Atlanta, his career was imperiled by a knee injury. From summer of ’07 into summer of ’09, Ninkovich was waived four times by two teams. Miami let him go twice; as did the Saints, whom he failed to make a second time, after auditioning as a long-snapper.
His next tryout — and likely last opportunity — was in Foxborough.
“I thought it was almost over in 2009. I had one chance to stick around to play in the NFL,” Ninkovich recounted. “Coming in, I was living out of a rubbermaid bin, with just my clothes, and throwing it into the back of my car and driving from city to city.”
Before totally unpacking, he had to make an impact on special teams.
“When I first got here, I was thinking, just let me run down on every kickoff and do everything I can on special teams,” Ninkovich says. “Just trying to (put) my foot in the door.”
He did, and soon other doors opened.
“His opportunities in the kicking game led to more opportunities on defense,” Belichick explained. “His opportunities on defense led to more opportunities on defense.”
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Five years later, they’ve all led to an opportunity to enjoy financial security, while continuing to chase a championship in a place that’s always seemed to do right by Ninkovich.
“That’s what made my decision a little easier,” he said. “Some people want to chase things besides being in a good spot and winning games. For me, I’ve been in a situation where I wasn’t expecting to get hurt or have a knee injury or be cut as many times as I have in my career. So with the things that I’ve done here and the success that I’ve had here, I wanted to continue (them). This was the right thing to do.
“There’s always going to be things in life that kind of slow you down, but if you’re passionate about something and want to pursue it, you just got to stay after it and stay hungry…I knew I could play in the NFL. I knew I could be what I am now. I just had to go a different route, so (I) was just persistent in continuing to strive to achieve the things I have.”
“Like everybody else around here, everything he’s gotten he’s earned,” Belichick adds. “He had no right or entitlement to anything. He just came in here and earned it. He’s been doing it for several years now.”
Now that he can do it for several more years, Ninkovich wouldn’t have done any of it any differently.
“No other way,” he says. “It’s the way it was supposed to be.”
EDELMAN’S VALUE RUNS DEEP
While Ninkovich inked a new deal in-season, among the Patriots re-signed last offseason is receiver Julian Edelman, who signed an incentive-laden, one-year contract in April.
Like Ninkovich, the diminutive receiver has been one of the most valuable performers during New England’s first 3-0 start since 2007. His 27 catches are tied with Atlanta’s Julio Jones for most in the NFL. He scored both touchdowns in the opener at Buffalo and opposite New York in Week 2, despite being a focal point of the Jets’ defense, managed a career-high 13 receptions. What’s more, Edelman has converted first downs off eight of his grabs, which tie him for fourth in the AFC.
His value, however, runs far deeper than Edelman’s mostly short-to-intermediate pass routes. In his career, he has scored on kickoff coverage (recovering a fumble vs. the Jets in 2012) and, of course, on punt returns (his three TD’s equal the franchise record).
Regarding the latter, not even an all-time NFL-high career average of 13.0 yards per punt return provides a true measure of Edelman’s worth. There’s no accounting for the hidden yardage he gains by aggressively getting upfield to reach punts still in flight, including those he ‘fair catches.’
And as so many teams are reminded each week, Edelman’s reliability to simply hold onto the football can’t be overrated. Certainly, Sunday’s opponent Atlanta knows all too well. The Falcons relinquished a 20-17, third-quarter lead to Miami last weekend after Harry Douglas’s fumbled punt return set up the Dolphins on Atlanta’s 18-yard line.
“Yeah, it’s huge,” Belichick says of securing the ball on special teams. “As we all know, nothing will turn a game around quicker than a turnover in the kicking game – blocked kicks or muffed kicks – because there’s so much field position involved in those plays.”
Especially impressive is Edelman’s ability to adapt and adjust, as a former college quarterback dealing with widely varying weather conditions.
“Julian has done a good job, for a guy who never returned punts in college, came in and learned the skills of reading the flight of the ball and the spin,” Belichick continues, noting the mentorship from Edelman’s ex-teammate Kevin Faulk and coaching of assistants Scott O’Brien and Joe Judge. “Then Julian works hard at it, he’s really become good at it. He’s become an experienced player at that, which wasn’t the case when he started.
“His confidence and his experience and his consistency at it is huge. For a guy who has never played the positions that he’s playing in the NFL, he’s developed and become pretty good at them.”
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.