New England Patriots: 15 best free agent acquisitions of all-time

Mike Vrabel, New England Patriots. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Mike Vrabel, New England Patriots. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images) /
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Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots
Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

. DE. (2010-16). Rob Ninkovich. 3. player. 47

  • 2x Super Bowl champion (XLIX, LI)
  • 46.0 career sacks
  • 14.0 career fumble recoveries
  • 10.0 career forced fumbles

If David Patten is an example of an unheralded, undrafted player finding success in the NFL with the Patriots, then Rob Ninkovich, like Tom Brady, is an example of a late-round draft steal.

The only difference is that Brady was drafted by the Patriots, while Ninkovich was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, and only came to New England later through free agency.

A fifth-round draft pick out of Purdue back in 2006, Ninkovich lasted just 14 months with the Saints before he was waived during final roster cuts. In fairness, he also suffered significant knee injuries in back-to-back years, which may have contributed to New Orleans’ willingness to go in a different direction.

Ninkovich got to then witness the Patriots’ undefeated regular season firsthand – only as a division rival playing for the Miami Dolphins. Originally a backup for Jason Taylor, Ninkovich saw limited action with the Dolphins in 2007 until he was finally cut and picked up again by the Saints in 2008. Not long after, he was released by New Orleans for a second time.

Most people would understand a player in Ninkovich’s position getting discouraged by all these various setbacks and injuries. To his credit, the defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid kept fine-tuning his game and waiting for the right opportunity… and in 2009, it came.

The Patriots came calling, signing “Ninko” to a one-year, $535,000 contract. After playing in just seven total games across two seasons from 2006 to 2007, Ninkovich played in 15 regular season games in 2009 with the Patriots.

He then became a veritable iron man for New England, playing in all 16 regular season games for the next six seasons straight. He wouldn’t miss a game until his final season in 2016.

Along the way, Ninkovich picked up 469 tackles, 88 quarterback hits, 46.0 sacks, 12 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries and five interceptions. He simultaneously anchored the Patriots’ defensive line and its linebacking corps.

Ninkovich played wherever he was needed, and embodying the kind of versatility, toughness and fundamental excellence that Bill Belichick craves in his top defensive playmakers.

Ninkovich is not just one of the best free agent signings in New England history, he’s also one of the best football players in the team’s history, as well.