Rob Ninkovich joined New England Pro Bowl defensive captain Vince Wilfork as the only two Patriots defenders to start all 16 games a year ago.
The seventh-year defensive end/outside linebacker finished the year with 6.5 sacks (third on the team) and 62 tackles as well as a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
Clearly he was a key cog on New England's much maligned defense. He's expected to have a similarly important role in 2012. But thanks to the team using six of its seven draft picks on defense — including a pair of first-round picks on front-seven talent – Ninkovich should have some more youthful help as the unit looks to improve its production this fall.
"I think that obviously the more guys you have with personnel it's always going to help you as far options and things you are going to do as far as schemes go," Ninkovich said after Thursday's OTA workout at Gillette Stadium.
Ninkovich barely seemed to leave the field in 2011. Such extensive reps can take a toll on a player later in the year. Given the new talent and potential flexibility up front — although the unit did lose Mark Anderson to free agency and Pro Bowler Andre Carter remains a free agent while recovering from a torn quad – New England may have more bodies to rotate through the front in 2012.
"It doesn't hurt me at all. I've been through a lot in my NFL career. I look at it as a plus, the team's going to be better," Ninkovich said of all the news faces he's working with. "If you have any type of injury or something you have guys that are coming in and we're all good, we're all fresh and we're all talented. It helps the team out. I'm excited.
The more personnel you have you can kind of roll through guys and stay fresh. If someone needs to come out and get a couple sips of water and get a breath and then go back in, you're going to play better. The personnel we have now I feel like we're going to have a lot more options as far as rolling guys and trying different things. Draft day, I was actually excited.
"They're going to help us out and hopefully we can improve and be a better defense."
Ninkovich also doesn't mind the role he's now playing as a mentor and leader as the most experienced, veteran player on the edge of the Patriots defensive front.
"It's a good position to be in," said the guy who some like to refer to as Vrabel 2.0. "You have those younger guys coming in, you want to be able to be that older guy that they kind of go to for questions. This first year for the rookies is a long year, so as much advice as I can give them it will help them out."
But Ninkovich's first priority is improving his own game, focusing this summer on getting better in both the pass rush and pass coverage as he comes off his best NFL campaign.
"It was a good year for me and now I just want to build on that," Ninkovich concluded.
As he builds on last year, what do you think Ninkovich can be expected to do in 2012? Can he be a 10-sack guy? Is he part of the core of a good defense? Let us know with a comment below!