FOXBOROUGH — So Rob Ninkovich has retired. Many a great and deserving word will be written and spoken about him. He was the perfect embodiment of Patriots Dynasty, 2.0.
But life goes on. Football goes on. It certainly goes on at One Patriots Place. So about two minutes after Ninkovich’s announcement, the natural question will be, “Well, what now for the Patriots?”
It’s a valid question. The Patriots won the Super Bowl last season despite being 26th in the league in adjusted sack rate, according to FootballOutsiders.com. That was with Ninkovich at his usual left end spot. In 2015, they were second.
There will be some panic in Patriots Nation. One of the few “weaknesses” on the team (seriously, you guys should go live someplace else for one NFL season, to see how the other side lives) was pass rush, and that won’t be helped by No. 50’s exit. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you shouldn’t worry. But I don’t think you should.
Here are the reasons:
Bill Belichick is still here: The bottom line is, he’ll get it figured out. Somehow. He almost always does. Trey Flowers is an ascending star at right end. The Patriots traded for Kony Ealy and while the early returns haven’t been good, the former Panther hasn’t acclimated himself yet to his surrounds, schemes and coaches. Brendan Daly is an excellent defensive line coach, and Matt Patricia knows a few things as well. The Patriots drafted Derek Rivers in the third round, and Deatrich Wise (who has really shown some things as of late) in the fourth. Both have displayed flashes in the first four practices, and that’s something to build off of. There are also other options, which will get into in a second.
They’ll find help, if needed: Even if Ealy was a mistake, and the rookies aren’t ready, the Patriots will go find assistance in some form if they need it. Look at the team’s single-season sack leaders since 2008. It’s not a who’s who list, it’s a who and who? list: Flowers (7.0), Chandler Jones (12.5), Ninkovich (8.0), Jones (11.5), Ninkovich (8.0), Andre Carter and Mark Anderson (10.0 each), Mike Wright (5.5), Tully Banta-Cain (10.0). Only Jones was a first-round pick with the team. The rest were either recycled and/or undrafted. The Patriots have picks and players to dangle in a trade, and the cap room (around $14 million) to make it happen. And, remember, Ninkovich arrived as a nobody shortly after Mike Vrabel was traded. We know how that worked out.
They don’t rely on a huge rush anyway: Since when have the Patriots ever relied on a Lawrence Taylor-esque dominating pass rusher? They prefer to have a player that does many things well, than one that does one thing great. And there are other ways to generate pass rush than just beating a blocker. There’s scheme and, more importantly, coverage. The better you cover, the more the quarterback holds the ball and allows pressure to impact the play. It sure looked like Stephon Gilmore was signed to helped the coverage and the pass rush, even before Ninkovich decided to hang them up. That doesn’t change. Gilmore and Malcolm Butler are the starting corners, and they are very good. There is talent battling for the third spot. Maybe this pushes Belichick back to Darrelle Revis, you never know. Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung are experienced safeties who know coverage and how to bait quarterbacks into poor throws. All of those can and will help the pass rush.
Hightower and McClellin are capable: The most pressing need in the wake of Ninkovich’s retirement is not pass rush, although, man, they don’t come more clutch than Ninkovich. It seemed like he was the king of walk-off sacks and/or forced fumbles. The most important thing for this defense is to identify the player on the edge that will be above average in three areas: containing the run (and even Ninkovich struggled with that at times of late), standing up and dealing with tight ends and/or running backs at the snap, and dropping into short zones where the quarterback doesn’t expect a defender to be. There aren’t a lot of players that are physically capable of doing all of those things, let alone being smart enough to adjust his assignments on the fly. That’s where Ninkovich’s greatest value was. Right now, there’s only one true candidate to do that on the roster: Dont’a Hightower. Not only can he do it, he can do it better than Ninkovich. That puts the David Harris signing, and his integration into the defense, into bigger focus. Before the former Jet arrived here, the Patriots almost had to plug Hightower into the middle of the defense. If Harris is effective, and he’s rapidly moving up the chart, that frees up Hightower to take over at Ninkovich’s left end spot. And even if the Patriots don’t want to do that all the time, Shea McClellin is on the roster. He’s an inch taller than Ninkovich, but 10 pounds lighter. McClellin would need to get a little stronger, but versatility is part of his game. He was a linebacker/end tweener coming out of Boise State, and the Bears tried him at both spots to no avail. That's very similar to what Ninkovich went through in New Orleans and Miami before landing with New England, and coaches who know how to use a player’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses. Kyle Van Noy has already seen an increase in his playing time on the edge. It’s not like the Patriots don’t have options. Hightower could be better, and McClellin and Van Noy can pitch in if the Patriots go with the "by committee" route.
The offense will be better: It won’t give many comfort, but with Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis healthy, Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead and Dwayne Allen now on the team, and the offensive line intact, the Patriots are poised to be much better on offense. And as soon as the opponent has to become one dimensional in order to catch up, the pass rush is much better because they can pin their ears back.
The Hoodie: All those Patriots fans out there worried about their team now that Ninkovich has retired, please raise your hand. OK, now, please rip that arm out of its socket and beat yourself over the head with it. Your coach and general manager is William Stephen Belichick. He’s won you two of the past three Super Bowls, and five since 2001. He’s at least been in the conference championship game for five-straight years.
Again, he’ll find a way. Chill out. This changes absolutely nothing for the 2017 Patriots, unless you like fretting for the sake of worrying.
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