Who is the Most Underrated Defensive Player in the NFL?
While the likes of Ndamukong Suh and J. J. Watt will grab the majority of headlines and discussions among defensive performers, there is one player who seldom makes the spotlight, but does his job, and over and above what is expected of him from day to day.
He won't get the fatest contract or be the top commodity when free agency rolls around. But if you need to count on someone to make a play, Rob Ninkovich is your man.
He was drafted in the fifth round in 2006 by the New Orleans Saints. He did next to nothing that year, and ended up on injured reserve. The next year he was shipped to Miami, where he did just as little and got cut after only appearing in four games.
And then the New England Patriots signed him and gave him the shot in the arm that he sorely needed.
Although his first year was rather quiet, he still managed 23 total tackles and a sack in 15 games. But Ninkovich was carving out a role for himself under the watchful eye of Bill Belichick. True talent and potential is never lost on Belichick.
Ninkovich is not your prototypical defender; he is more of a tweener. Sometime linebacker, sometime defensive end, he plays around the ball and disrupts the best laid plans of many an offense.
He stands at 6'2" and weighs-in at 260 lbs, small for a DE and a little larger than most LBs. He isn't incredibly fast or athletic, but he is smart and motivated.
Because of his ability to anticipate, read, and react, Ninkovich makes plays when other defenders overreact and overrun plays, or get caught in the wash. In a career that started so slowly, he has made the most of his "third chance" with the Patriots.
From 2010 to 2014, once Ninkovich became entranched as a starter, he has recorded four or more sacks per year, averaging seven over that span. He has forced eight fumbles and recovered a total of 13. But he also has five interceptions, one for a touchdown.
At times, Ninkovich does it all by himself, as in 2012 when he strip-sacked Mark Sanchez and recovered the ball himself. Since that season, he has recorded eight sacks each, intercepting and deflecting passes, and knocking QBs around, and has become as much of a team-leader as anyone else on the field, especially in the absence of Jerod Mayo.
In many ways, he does more things well than any other player on the team, and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as a Suh or Watt. While the Patriots of the 2000s will be remembered as Brady's team, the contributions of Ninkovich have been no less important. That's what makes him the most underrated player on the defensive side of the ball.