FOXBOROUGH — It is surreal, Rob Ninkovich says, and just a little bit crazy, to think that it has been four years.
It has been four years since Ninkovich arrived in New England, Aug. 2, 2009, to be exact, thinking that the chance the Patriots were offering was very likely his last chance to stick with an NFL team after bouncing back and forth between New Orleans and Miami over the previous three years.
His clothes were in a Rubbermaid bin he threw in the back of his car, and he basically lived out of that bin for a few weeks.
Over the past weekend, Ninkovich signed a three-year extension to remain in New England through 2016; the deal is for $15 million, with $8.5 million guaranteed.
In other words, no more Rubbermaid bins.
“I wanted to be here and I knew this was the team that gave me my opportunity to even play, so it worked great for both sides and I’m happy to be here and happy to keep winning games,” Ninkovich said. “It was a great feeling.
“Some guys don’t have the opportunity to stick around with the team that they want to stick around with, so again, I think that’s both sides coming to an agreement and realizing that my value is best here and not anywhere else.
“I love the Boston area, I want to be here, so I’m happy to be here three more years.”
Ninkovich was a fifth-round pick of the Saints in 2006, and played in three games as a rookie before tearing his ACL. New Orleans waived him out of training camp a year later, and Ninkovich was claimed by the Dolphins.
He was in Miami through December 2008, bouncing between the 53-man roster and practice squad, when he was re-signed by the Saints, who were in need of bodies after two defensive players were suspended under the league’s substance-abuse policy.
In the 2009 offseason, New Orleans tried to convert Ninkovich into a full-time long snapper. Desperate to stick, Ninkovich went along, but he still was released as training camp began.
A couple of days later, he was in New England. At the time, he didn’t get a special sense that he finally had landed where he belonged; he was just happy to have another chance.
“I was happy to have a job,” Ninkovich said. “When I first got here I was thinking, ‘Let me run down on every kickoff and do everything I can on special teams and just try and throw my foot in the door.’ ”
He played 15 games his first season with the Patriots, almost exclusively on special teams, though he recorded his first NFL sack in Week 5 against Denver. His success on special teams led to more snaps on defense, though coach Bill Belichick acknowledged Monday that he never expected Ninkovich would become the player he has, with 20 sacks and 11 fumble recoveries over the last four-plus seasons.
“A lot of times a player’s offensive or defensive play time stems from his special teams performance,” Belichick said. “When a player can play in the kicking game and he’s at the game every week because he’s there in the kicking game, then the offensive or defensive coaches can start to utilize him in some kind of role respective to their side of the ball.
“If a player does well in that role, then that can expand. A lot of times, that’s how it works. His opportunities in the kicking game led to more opportunities on defense, his performance on defense led to more opportunities on defense. Like everybody else around here, he’s gotten what he’s earned.”
Ninkovich has started at outside linebacker and now at defensive end. He believes that versatility helped him stick with the Patriots.
“I think that my skills fit this scheme well,” he said. “I can play D-end and I can play linebacker, so that helps as well. Some guys that are really big, they can’t play linebacker, and some guys that are smaller linebackers can’t put their hand down and fight off big tackles, so just physically I think I fit well, and just happy to be in the scheme, happy to be able to play, and sometimes the grass isn’t always greener — stick where you’re at.”
The 29-year-old Illinois native, who became a father for the first time three months ago, acknowledged that he could have gone somewhere else after his contract expired at the end of this season, but he didn’t feel the need to try.
“Some people want to chase other things besides being in a good spot and winning games,” Ninkovich said. “For me, I’ve been in the situation where I wasn’t expecting to get hurt, or have a knee injury or be cut as many times as I have in my career, so with the things that I’ve done here and the success that I’ve had here, I wanted to continue that and this was the right thing to do.”
Said Belichick, “Rob has done a good job for us. He’s come in here and gotten better each year. He’s a versatile player that’s given us a lot of production and a hard-working guy that I think is a well-respected player on the team. I’m happy we got it done.”
Despite all his struggles, Ninkovich wouldn’t have wanted his career to progress any other way. When he came to New England, he was at possibly his lowest point as a player, but he didn’t have a Plan B — he was going to keep bouncing from team to team until he found the right opportunity, the right match.
When the opportunities ran out, if they’d run out, he would have tried something new. But the one he thought might be his last chance was that best chance.
“There’s always going to be things in life that slow you down,” Ninkovich said. “But if you’re passionate about something and you want to pursue it, you’ve just got to stay after it and stay hungry.
“I wanted — I knew, not say want — I knew I could play in the NFL, I knew I could be what I am now, I just had to go a different route. It was just persistence and continuing to strive to achieve the things that I have.”