Pats look for an edge with Ninkovich at DE

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Pats look for an edge with Ninkovich at DE

FOXBORO - Major defensive change for the 2012 Patriots was first augured during the draft.

The selection of purebred, upfield pass rusher, Chandler Jones and the subsequent selection of appliance-sized linebacker Dont'a Hightower meant that the personnel would more closely fit the scheme. And Bill Belichick said as much during the draft, noting the front-seven personnel needed tweaking.

Spending first round picks on spots the team traditionally tried to fill with NFL bargain bin castoffs and has-beens meant two things. First, if Jones and Hightower fit, the defense would be simplified. Second, if they worked out, the players who'd manned their spots would be available for different duties.

Which brings us to Rob Ninkovich.

A defensive end at Purdue and in his first three vagabond NFL seasons, when Ninkovich landed in New England, he joined the long line of DEs introduced to life away from the line, standing up and playing outside linebacker.

Nobody could have predicted how well he'd take to it. By 2011, Ninkovich became a true pass rush threat off the edge and a heady playmaker off the line. Vrabelesque? Yeah. A reasonable facsimile.

But the personnel and scheme change to a base 4-3 alignment means Ninkocvivh is SOL at OLB. Now he's back to defensive end. Hand in the dirt, playing (generally) over the tight end on the left side of the defense where most teams like to run.

"Coming into camp I knew that obviously there were going to be some changes theres always change in training camp so I was able to go to a position Ive played before, which is defensive end," said Ninkovich. "Its a little more of 'go get the quarterback, go get the ball' type mentality, so its fun for me.

Since absolutes are not something Bill Belichick embraces, the coach spoke generally about what Ninkovich will be doing in 2012.

"Robs always played at the end of the line of scrimmage so thats still where he plays," Belichick said when asked about the move to defensive end. "Some things hes doing this year hes done in the past, maybe in different frequencies or percentages but hes still fundamentally an end-of-the-line player. I see him as an end-of-the-line player thats the way I would classify him. You can call him whatever you want, it doesnt matter to me."

The geography is less important than the work orders, though, and Ninkovich's are changing a bit.

We know he can rush. He's proven that. How well will he stack and set the edge in the running game? That's a question. Doing it from a two-point stance off the line is different than doing it from a three-point stance where you're an arm's length from the tight end or tackle. Will he get enveloped? Will he get pushed downfield?

"I've always been pretty strong," Ninkovich countered. "Tight ends, I've been able to handle them. Tackles, both of em, at the same time. I should be all right. I've been doing it for a long time, its just something you get your techniqie right, get your hand placement right. In that position it's more about technique and leverage than it is about brute strength."

In each off the past two seasons, Ninkovich has had two picks. He also had a very respectable 10.5 sacks in the two years.

"The more things you can do, the more versatile you are for the team, the more you're gonna help the team out.

"In college, (defensive end) was my position, my first couple of years in the NFL that's the only position I played. I came here and learned how to play outside linebacker. It's something I'm adding to the bag of tricks. If you can play defensive end, if you can play outside linebacker, overall it helps everything."

Belichick: Patriots have caught up after starting offseason 'five weeks behind'

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Belichick: Patriots have caught up after starting offseason 'five weeks behind'

FOXBORO -- After starting the offseason "five weeks behind," as Bill Belichick put it, the Patriots have caught up. 

"I think we’re probably caught up to where we are now," he said before Thursday's OTA practice at Gillette Stadium. "I think it’s being behind in draft, free agency and that type of thing.

"I think at this point, we’re ready for OTAs. We’ll be ready for training camp. I think that part of it we’ll be on schedule on. It’s the catching up on all the spring projects, draft and free agency. It’s the initial part of it."

Belichick made headlines on the morning after winning his fifth Lombardi Trophy with the Patriots when he said, "As of today, and as great as today feels and as great as today is, in all honesty we're five weeks behind in the 2017 season to most teams in the league. Fortunately we have a great personnel staff

"Look, in a couple weeks we're going to be looking at the combine, obviously the draft, all-star games have already occurred, and in a month we're into free agency, not to mention all the internal Patriots players (whose) contracts are up and we're going to have to work with in some form or fashion like every team in the league does."

Leaning on evaluations of players that began in the build-up to previous drafts, Belichick and his staff opted to trade away some of this year's draft capital for veterans like Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy and Dwayne Allen. They also gave up their fifth-rounder to sign restricted free agent Mike Gillislee.

Before heading out to the team's third practice of the week -- the first week the Patriots were allowed to introduce helmets and run offense versus defense periods -- Belichick said that part of his focus will be spent on finding out how those players he picked up this offseason are progressing.

"Yeah, that’s definitely part of it," he said. "Seeing the new players, how they’re doing and also how they’re doing relevant to the rest of the other players that I’m a little more familiar with. Again, each year is a new year, so even though we’ve seen some of these guys multiple years, it’s still starting all over again, seeing where they are, how they’re progressing in their training and preparation for the season."

Brandin Cooks knows he'll still probably have to stash the arrows in 2017

Brandin Cooks knows he'll still probably have to stash the arrows in 2017

FOXBORO -- Toward the end of Thursday's OTA practice at Gillette Stadium, Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks caught a touchdown from Tom Brady in the back corner of the end zone despite close coverage from corner Malcolm Butler. Cooks reached behind him, as if he was pulling an invisible arrow from an invisible quiver on his back, starting what was once his signature touchdown celebration. 

But he stopped there. 

"I didn't want to shoot it," he said with a smile after the workout. "Just having fun out there with the guys, competing every day. That's what it's all about."

Cooks may have to continue showing restraint during the regular season when it comes to his post-touchdown choices. Even though the NFL has eased off of the penalties for certain celebrations, Cooks still probably won't be shooting any arrows in 2017.

"No, I'm gonna be respectful," he said. "If it's a penalty, it's a penalty. I'm not going to do anything to hurt the team . . . I think it still will be [a penalty]."

Cooks was not able to execute his preferred celebration after it was made clear last season that imitating archery was off-limits. Josh Norman was fined $10,000 last season for his bow-and-arrow act. 

There is a biblical origin story to Cooks' celebration, he told the New Orleans Advocate last year. 

"Send forth lightning and scatter your enemy, and shoot your arrows and rout them," Cooks said, referring to Psalms 144:6. "I just remember it sticking with me for such a long time, I remember thinking, maybe I can do something with this."

He added: ”I’ve been doing it for three years now, and there was never a complaint about it. Now, all of a sudden, there is. It just reminds me that, it's almost as if they try to take so much away from us, but for something like this, that means so much to someone that has nothing to do with violence, it's frustrating. I'll definitely continue to speak my opinion about it, and if they have a problem with it, so be it."

After the NFL announced that it was relaxing its policy on penalizing celebrations, Cooks tweeted "#shootyourarrows" four times with several bow-and-arrow emojis. But just a few days later, he appeared resigned to keeping his celebration in moth balls so that his team wouldn't be penalized for an act that the league might deem "threatening." He wasn't thrilled.

"It's for God," he said, "so if that's threatening, then I think we've got a problem."