From the day Rob Ninkovich arrived in Foxborough during training camp in 2009 he's always been viewed as a versatile player capable of filling a variety of roles. As his career with the Patriots progressed, he drew comparisons to Mike Vrabel, both in style and due to the fact that he donned No. 50.
Judging from some early observations it seems as if Ninkovich might be continuing to follow in Vrabel's footsteps.
The 32-year-old Ninkovich has been patrolling the inside of the Patriots defense as a true off-the-line linebacker this spring, just as Vrabel moved from the edge to the inside back in 2005 when a porous run defense necessitated the change.
While it's far too early to judge if Ninkovich's swap is anything more than a simple Bill Belichick exercise in creating flexibility, the adjustment has been noteworthy during the team's mandatory three-day mini-camp.
"For me, being an overall football player in every aspect of the game, whatever is helping the team," Ninkovich explained after Wednesday's practice. "Trying to learn different positions and trying to master being inside, outside, end of the line … whatever I need to do."
Seeing Ninkovich on the inside is new for New England since his time has been spent as an outside linebacker/defensive end as a Patriot. But he indicated that he worked at inside linebacker early in his career – back in 2007-08 – while in Miami with the Dolphins.
Now entering his seventh season with the Patriots and 11th overall, Ninkovich says he welcomes the challenges of switching spots.
"In this game there are many things that are hard to master so trying to learn a different position is a challenge and I embrace that," he said. "I've played multiple positions many times in my life. Whatever I'm at, really it's just to help the team and do whatever I can and be multiple. That's one of the strengths of my game is being able to play multiple positions."
Ninkovich is coming off another solid season for the Patriots. He started all 16 games for the fourth straight year in 2015 and finished with 56 tackles, 8 sacks (the third consecutive season he's hit that mark), an interceptions and a forced fumble.
With the departure of Chandler Jones via an offseason trade with Arizona, he and Jabaal Sheard projected as the top two defensive ends. But thus far this spring the alignments have been a bit different with Ninkovich spending much of his time on the inside.
"I've done many different positions in my career so just trying to do as many as I can," Ninkovich concluded.
We'll have to wait to see if it's a permanent switch or simply an attempt to create more versatility.