With Ninkovich Retired, Who Steps Up on the Edge?

Steve Balestrieri
July 31, 2017 at 8:59 am ET

The retirement of Rob Ninkovich on Sunday afternoon was a significant loss for the Patriots in both terms of experience, (he’s been a stalwart on the team for eight years) but in terms of snaps. Other than last year where he missed the first four games and was bothered by his triceps injury all season, he’s always been one of the leaders in snap percentage on the defense.

The Patriots lost a lot of combined experience on the edge this season, Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long are all gone from the 2016 team, a combined 27 years of experience. Now they have as their longest tenured edge player, Trey Flowers who is entering just his third season.

We know Flowers is expected to be their main guy this season. We saw over the course of the second half of last season and the playoffs that he was arguably their best defensive lineman. One of the reasons they let Sheard and Long walk was they felt that this was the time for Flowers to shine and they went with youth.

So that part was certainly expected. But Ninkovich’s retirement leaves a void in experience and snaps, so who steps up in 2017 to fill the gap and provides the team with the pressure they’ll need?

Kony Ealy is definitely a guy the team expects big things from in 2017. They made a trade with Carolina to bring in Ealy, who has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his career but has yet to put it together.
The cards are all falling in place for Ealy to get a new jumpstart to his career. He has the most experience of any of the edge players, but he’s only 25 and is entering just his fourth NFL season. Things didn’t get off to a great start at camp for Ealy who missed the first day’s session. When asked about it, he stammered out a response that made it seem that Bill Belichick and he weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on something. It may be nothing, we’ll have to monitor this moving forward.

Ealy could team up with Flowers and give the Patriots a young, dynamic 1-2 duo on the edge…if everything plays out. The ball is in his court, and when the team gets back to work on Tuesday morning, Ealy and Flowers will be definitely under the microscope a bit more now.

Derek Rivers after his first training camp practice. (SBalestrieri photo)

The team drafted two edge players in Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise in this spring’s NFL Draft. Rivers was their top draft pick and Wise was also taken in the early going.

Rivers hasn’t turned heads yet, but we’re really only two padded practices into camp, He’s a rookie and has a steep learning curve, having not played against this level of competition in college, especially with the speed of the NFL game.

Rivers arguably has the higher ceiling of the two but he’s in a new defense and admitted on Thursday after the 1st practice session, he’s trying to just react and play his game without having to think about what he needs to do. It is early, and this is what training camp is for.

Wise has made some flashes already, the big guy from Arkansas has shown some nice moves and good explosion off the ball in the early going in both one-on-one drills and during full team work. He’s still got a long way to go as well, but thus far, the results have to be encouraging for the coaching staff.

Deatrich Wise has flashed some good explosion in the early going at training camp. (SBalestrieri photo)

The team will need at least one if not both rookies to step up a bit this season. The pass rush was so-so for much of the 2016 season although it isn’t about sacks but pressure and being able to influence the opposing quarterback’s decision-making process. If they can get their 3rd and 4th round draft picks involved and productive, it will go a long way.

Geneo Grissom is the guy who could garner the most impact with Ninkovich’s retirement. He’s been a bit of a disappointment for a 3rd round draft pick, and has had very little impact on defense, instead just being a core special teams’ player.

Entering his third campaign, he should see an immediate uptick in snaps now that Ninkovich is retired. Like Ealy, the timing is perfect for Grissom, who, if he’s ever going to make an impact on the field, this should be the time.

Grissom looks to have added extra muscle in Year3, in a pivotal year for the DE. (SBalestrieri photo)

Besides the defensive ends, the Patriots also have some linebackers who have shown the ability to rush the quarterback from the edge. Dont’a Hightower is on PUP right now, but he’s been a very effective blitzer from the outside linebacker position. His sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl was one of the big turning points in the game.

Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin have also shown the ability to bring pressure on opposing QBs. And both should see some plenty of work in doing that. Rookie Harvey Langi is another LB who could see a role as a blitzer on passing downs.

So while Patriots nation, bids a fond farewell to Rob Ninkovich, the business of the NFL takes back over and the Patriots pass rush, while not glaring to the point of being called a weakness, is now an area of concern with #50’s retirement. Their depth took a hit there. And now it is up to the players that are here to step up.

 

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