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."