Ninkovich carves his niche in New England

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Ninkovich carves his niche in New England

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- Rob Ninkovich was a punch line in a Patriots jersey.

His presence in New England seemed only a symptom of the Adalius Thomas problem. Was the relationship so rotten between Thomas and his team that a discarded Saints long snapper, a Miami practice squad cast-off, would be a step up?

Apparently.

Not even Bill Belichick was aware of Ninkovichs potential.

I dont really know what our expectations were when we got him, the Patriots coach admitted. We had an extra spot, so we brought him in and he started playing and took advantage of his opportunities. So, he carved out a special role for himself and Robs gotten better over the two years that hes been here.

When we first got him, it was kind of a last-minute thing get a guy in here for training camp and all that. There wasnt really a lot of preparation put into the signing other than by Nick Caserio and Jason Licht and our personnel department, they got who they felt was the best player available at that position.

And look whos laughing now.

Ninkovichs fifth season in the NFL has been his best. The linebacker has 45 tackles and 17 assists, 4.0 sacks and two interceptions in 16 games for the Patriots. Hes started 10 games, including a Week 4 New England win over his old team in Miami. That night, Ninkovich sacked Chad Henne and recorded his first two career interceptions.

In the regular season finale against the Dolphins, Ninkovich beat his chest a little bit with four tackles -- three for a loss -- two sacks and a fumble recovery. If there were still any doubts about Rob Ninkovichs role, they can now share the casket with Miamis season.

Those who know him best arent surprised with his recent success. Mark Hagen, who worked with Ninkovich as a defensive coach at Purdue, believes it was inevitable.

Rob is probably one of the hardest workers Ive ever been around, Hagen said. Ive been in college football for 15 years and I can probably only put one other guy in his category in terms of how hard he works and how hard he plays. Hes the type of guy that never takes a down off and you cant really say that about a lot of players.

Hes had some adversity here and in the years leading up to his time in New England, but none of his accomplishments surprise me, knowing the type of guy he is. Theres nothing thats going to stand in his way. Once he sets a goal hes going to find his way to reach it.

His chance arose in 2009 with some help from another player's fall from grace. Thomas was reaching the apex of unhappiness in New England. The linebacker clashed with his coach, refusing to admit that his lessened role reflected decreased productivity. An especially poor performance in the Patriots Week 5 loss to Denver was rock bottom for Thomas. Ninkovich saw opportunity.

Last year I was just doing the special-teams thing all year, whatever I could do on defense, Ninkovich explained. Obviously, I was excited; AD was the guy. I was just patiently waiting to have an opportunity to get out on the field. I think Denver was my first play and it was a sack so it was pretty cool.

Even performing as a stopgap, Ninkovich was encouraged. But hed been there before.

When Rob was a senior we had two other really good defensive ends, Hagen said. We had three great players for two positions. The other two guys who played with him were juniors. Both of those guys are starting in the NFL. One is Anthony Spencer, who starts at linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. The other is Ray Edwards, who starts at defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings. So you had three future NFL guys for two spots and those guys were the starters. Rob never complained. He knew he was going to play; we played all three guys, but he was really the backup.

Probably around midseason Edwards just wasnt getting it done, wasnt very productive, and Rob replaced him as a starter and really flourished down the stretch. In fact, in his final game against Indiana -- a rivalry game -- Rob had four sacks. He never complained once, he just came out to practice every day, knew what he was capable of doing. In the back of his mind, he knew he could have been a starter but never once changed the way he approached each day.

That mindset predates college.

Staying positive in the face of adversity has long been his attitude. It's what kept him afloat when bouncing between practice squads in New Orleans and Miami. The source? His family. In the Patriots locker room you can catch a glimpse of the St. Christopher's medallion that hangs, always, around his neck. His grandmother gave it to his father, who wore it while serving in the Vietnam War and then eventually passed it along to his 18-year old son.

My parents have been huge for me, Ninkovich said. They've taught me a lot about my work ethic, everything that goes along with sticking to something and never quitting. I can remember going out for wrestling. I hated it. After the first practice -- I was in eighth grade -- I hated it. After the first day I had to wrestle this big chubby kid and I said 'I'm not doing this anymore. I can't do it.'

But I finished the whole season. I didn't quit. I went all the way to the rest of the year. Once I start something I'm not satisfied until I officially am able to end it; until the season's ended or I'm completely satisfied with what I do.

With the Patriots, he's found himself in the perfect place for overachievers. Danny Woodhead, Kyle Arrington and Gerard Warren are players whose careers have hit an upswing in New England this season. They can be filed among the Belichickian tradition of plucking diamonds from the rough, or honing them from coal: Wes Welker, Tom Brady, Dan Koppen, Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi . . .

That's one thing that Coach Belichick has really been able to do in building some of the great teams that he's had, is take guys who may be under the radar but who fit his profile of being willing to work hard every day, be willing to pay the price," Hagan said. "I think he's found a guy like that in Rob Ninkovich. He knew Rob could play on his feet, that he had some athleticism about him; a guy who could play hard every snap, who could play special teams."

When he got picked up by the Patriots I thought to myself, 'There's no better place for him because of the system that's in place there and what Coach Belichick has done with similar guys.' ''

Mike Vrabel is one.

When Ninkovich showed up in New England, comparisons with Vrabel were reflexive. They share the linebacker position, the No. 50 and something like a crew cut. The rest, though, were unfairly born of a damn high standard: Vrabel was a defensive staple of the Patriots Super Bowl-winning teams. He was a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro selection. He was a fan favorite. Its no wonder that some were so quick to dismiss Ninkovich.

But go back to the beginning. Vrabel was stuck in Pittsburghs special teams purgatory for four seasons. He didnt start an NFL game until he was 26 years old and playing for the Patriots.

Just like Ninkovich.

Its just a mentality of, you dont ever want to be outdone, Ninkovich said. I'm always working hard; I'm trying to get the most out of what I have.

What hes gotten is a steady job as a playmaker for the New England Patriots. And theres nothing funny about that.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Secretary of Navy: Cardona 'may have to leave the Patriots' to serve

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Secretary of Navy: Cardona 'may have to leave the Patriots' to serve

United States Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus joined the Dan Patrick Show on Thursday to discuss new Ravens draftee Keenan Reynolds, a record-setting quarterback during his career at the Naval Academy. In so doing, Mabus hit on the uncertain status of Patriots long-snapper Joe Cardona. 

"Right now we do have a process," Mabus said. "It hasn't got up to me yet to [decide on whether or not Reynolds will be eligible to play], but there are a lot of paths to both play and to serve. 

"We've got Joe Cardona, long snapper for the Patriots. He played . . . last year for the Patriots while he was on active duty because he was able to work them both out. Now he's been assigned to a ship, and he's going to report to that ship. He may have to leave the Patriots for a year or so to go fulfill that roll."

The playing status for individuals like Reynolds and Cardona is always somewhat uncertain given their commitment. Last season, Cardona was able to serve by working at the Naval Preparatory Academy during his time away from the Patriots facilities. Once his rookie season ended, he headed back to the Newport, Rhode Island-based school to work full-time and help mentor students there. 

Cardona was scheduled to make his way to Norfolk, Virginia later in the offseason and live there for about two months to participate in the Navy's Basic Division Officer Course, or "BDOC," which was required before he could report to his ship as a Surface Warfare Officer. From there, he was scheduled to travel to Bath, Maine, to work on the USS Zumwalt. 

"I'll get to work there and figure out a schedule that doesn't interfere with either of my jobs," Cardona said back in January following New England's loss to Denver in the AFC title game, "and hopefully be back on the field next year."

Cardona has long maintained that his job as an active member of the Navy is his top priority. Should his duties on the USS Zumwalt interfere with his long-snapping work with the Patriots, he could realistically sit out for the season. 

The Patriots signed veteran long-snapper Christian Yount earlier this offseason in a move that reminded those following the team that Cardona is not guaranteed to be available for 2016. Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich has long-snapped in the past and typically serves as the team's emergency snapper. 

Cardona was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and played in all 16 regular-season games and two postseason games for the Patriots last season. 

Caserio: Wasn't the plan to aquire 2017 4th-rounder for Deflategate

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Caserio: Wasn't the plan to aquire 2017 4th-rounder for Deflategate

When the Patriots walked away from last weekend's draft, they did so with an extra fourth round pick to be used in 2017. That was especially noteworthy given that the Patriots will be docked a fourth-rounder next year as part of the Deflategate punishment handed down to the team by the league. 

But when Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio joined Sirius XM's "Move the Chains" program this week, he said they weren't dead-set on grabbing an extra fourth-rounder for next year. 

"Not necessarily," Caserio explained. "When you get into the draft, you're not really sure how it's going to unfold. You go into the process, you get yourselves prepared to pick whenever you're going to pick."

The Patriots traded down twice and up once during the three-day draft process. On Day 2, they traded the No. 61 overall pick to the Saints in exchange for picks No. 78 and No. 112, which turned into North Carolina State guard Joe Thuney and Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell, respectively.

On Day 3, Caserio and Bill Belichick made two more deals. First, they dealt two sixth-rounders (No. 196 and No. 204) and a seventh-rounder (No. 250) to Miami for the Dolphins' fifth-rounder (No. 147). Then the No. 147 overall selection was flipped to the Seahawks, along with No. 243, in exchange for No. 225 and a fourth-rounder in 2017. The Patriots eventually spent No. 225 on Arizona State receiver Devin Lucien.

"I don't think anybody had a master plan, like, 'This is how it's going to go,' " Caserio said. "I think you look at the draft, and you kind of assess where you are relative to the players you're going to pick. If you feel it makes sense to make a trade, then you go ahead and do it. If you don't, then you go ahead and pick.

"Like, we were prepared to pick there with that fifth-round pick [at No. 147] that we ended up moving. But the way it worked out, like, I don't any of us would've said going to the draft, like, 'This is how we think it's going to go.' "

The league's punishment for Deflategate states that the Patriots will lose the higher of their two selections in the fourth round for next year so it's unclear as to whether it will be their own fourth-rounder or Seattle's that will be erased. Either way, at least now they are scheduled to pick in the fourth round in 2017, whereas before the Seahawks deal they were not.