FOXBOROUGH — On one of his first trips to Gillette Stadium last year, Chandler Jones met with some members of the defensive coaching staff as well as a couple of players — Patrick Chung was one, and the other was Rob Ninkovich.
Jones and Ninkovich exchanged phone numbers that day, went out together that night, and a friendship that seems unlikely was born.
“Ever since then we clicked. It’s funny that we’re in the same room, play the same position — it’s almost like we’re black and white,” Jones said, laughing.
This story began as one about Jones, the Patriots’ first of two first-round picks last year — the first player the Patriots moved up to get in nearly a decade, after years of moving down and sometimes out of the first round altogether — and how he’s doing almost midway through his second season.
But in talking to Ninkovich, who plays opposite Jones at defensive end, about how his younger teammate has been developing, one thing became clear: The two are much more than linemates thrown together by circumstance.
When asking about how much time they spend communicating, the intent was to discover how much they talk about certain plays, such as a couple of weeks ago against the Saints, when Jones credited Ninkovich for tipping him off to the naked bootleg Drew Brees ran, leading to Jones taking him down for a 5-yard loss late in a close game.
But Ninkovich revealed that it isn’t all football chatter between them.
“We talk all the time. He’s a good person, you know, off the field he’s a great guy,” Ninkovich said. “We talk a lot. He’ll call me if he has anything going on, talk to me if he — it’s always good to be able to ring someone on the phone and just talk to them about anything you have on your mind.”
Jones alluded to the “ebony and ivory” quality to their relationship, and their differences are more than skin deep: Jones is black, single, and 23, while Ninkovich is white and approaching 30 with a wife and baby.
Like all first-round picks, Jones entered the league with a great deal of fanfare. He is 6 feet 5 inches, listed at 265 pounds, and is noted for his long arms.
Ninkovich was a fifth-round pick, which carries far fewer expectations. But injuries nearly derailed him early in his career and he’s earned every snap he’s gotten in the NFL. He is listed at 6-2, 260 pounds, far more stout than the willowy Jones.
Even in the Patriots’ locker room, they’re at opposite ends. Because he came to the team as a linebacker, Ninkovich is at the south end, closer to Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo, while Jones is at the north end with the rest of the defensive linemen, next to Vince Wilfork and now Andre Carter.
Yet somehow, they’re nearly joined at the hip.
“It’s crazy because I’m a lot older than him — which, I still feel like a young kid myself, so when he’s like, ‘you old man’ — he calls me old man or something, says I’ve got an old man body, but whatever,” Ninkovich says, rolling his eyes.
Hearing this, locker room neighbor Dane Fletcher starts to laugh, and says not to believe Ninkovich, that Jones’s barbs definitely hurt Ninkovich’s feelings.
“Whatever,” Ninkovich repeated. “I tell [Jones], ‘I’m just strong, OK? I’m strong. I don’t have a skinny, string-bean body like yourself.’
“But we have a good relationship, we hang out outside [of the facility], we’ll play some Madden. I’ll beat him up at Madden all the time.”
Jones cops to calling Ninkovich an old man “all the time.”
Like any good friend, however, he is quick to defend Ninkovich.
“I make fun of his body, but he’s an exceptional athlete. For his age and for what he does, he’s very versatile, he can do a lot of things,” Jones said. “He’s very flexible, not a lot of people know how flexible he is. But I look up to him. He’s one of our leaders and he’s an exceptional athlete.”
There is a limit to what Ninkovich can do, however, and he has to acknowledge that sometimes when working with Jones.
One of the ways Jones uses Ninkovich is as his pass-rushing guinea pig. At any moment inside Gillette Stadium, whether they’re walking to the cafeteria or walking out to practice, Jones will stop Ninkovich when a potential move strikes him and try it out.
“Always. Always. I’ll be like, ‘Let me try this one. Put your hands here,’ ” Jones said. “It’s never an offensive lineman I try it on. And he’ll be the one that will be like, ‘Uh, that might not work,’ and sometimes I might have to veto him, ‘You know what, this might work.’ So we have our little debates, but he’s definitely the guinea pig when I have a new move I’m thinking about using.”
And if Jones thinks Ninkovich could try it as well, Ninkovich at times has to bring him back to reality.
“I’ll say, ‘Chandler, I can’t do that. It doesn’t work. The guy just grabs me and I’m done,’ ” Ninkovich said.
With his size and length and speed, the raw tools are there for Jones, as he showed as a rookie, when he had six sacks despite being slowed in the second half of the season by injuries to both ankles.
This year, he’s turned his focus to the mental aspects of the game, and he also has concentrated on making sure he’ll be able to endure the physical rigors of the season — particularly since both he and Ninkovich have played nearly every defensive snap thus far, missing 13 combined.
“I felt like last year I was doing a lot of just trying to get a sack on every play,” Jones said. “For the most part, this year I’m trying to set a move up and then when I get that look I want, that’s when I’ll try that move that I’ve been working on. It’s more of a mental game than anything. More of how to do it than just doing it.”
Ninkovich believes it’s a process all players go through.
“I think that when you first come in the league you think, ‘I’m so athletic, I can run past these guys,’ ” he said. “Yeah, you can run past them, but they can push you past the quarterback and you’re not going to get there.
“You just have to realize . . . it’s a chess match. You’re trying to give a guy a certain look because you think he’s going to set on you that way, and then you change it up on him and then he changes it up on you, so it’s just a big battle you have throughout the game.”
Jones had two sacks against the Jets a week ago, giving him 6½, already topping his total from a year ago. As he figures things out physically and mentally, and leaning on his “brother from another mother” in Ninkovich, as he joked, he’s well on his way to becoming the disruptive pass rusher Patriots fans have been longing for.
“The sky’s the limit for him as far as what he can do on the field,” Ninkovich said. “I think he’s going to get better as he matures and even becomes more comfortable with himself. In the beginning of your career, you realize that you can do a lot more than what you really anticipated.”