When the New England Patriots issued No. 50 to defensive end Rob Ninkovich, he knew what it represented.
Former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel had worn the number before he was traded to the Chiefs in 2009, and Ninkovich understood Vrabel’s place in New England lore.
Vrabel was an integral part of three Super Bowl champions in eight seasons and in his Patriots career contributed 48 sacks, 11 interceptions and eight touchdown catches as an eligible receiver.
Ninkovich, a journeyman signed by New England as a free agent after he was waived by New Orleans, treasured the chance to wear the hallowed No. 50.
“When I first got to the team, I was No. 45, and I tried to get out of that number …” he said through his bushy, full-length beard. “I saw 50, and said, ‘Hey, I have some big shoes to fill.’ I’m not there yet. I have to continue to play as hard as I do and carry it on.
“I’ve never met Vrabel … I wasn’t here when he was here, but I want to represent him the best I can.”
Ninkovich, who turns 31 years old on Super Bowl Sunday, when the Patriots face the Seattle Seahawks, has been a worthy successor.
Having found a home at defensive end, Ninkovich has recorded eight sacks in each of the last three years, becoming the first Patriots player to have at least eight sacks in three consecutive seasons since Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett achieved the feat during 1985-87.
That’s a long way from his days as a fifth-round draft pick by New Orleans in 2006 that saw him waived four times by the Saints and Dolphins after trials as a linebacker, defensive end, tight end and even long snapper.
“I had a lot of things to accomplish and people to prove wrong,” Ninkovich said, “and I’ve been able to do that.
“I started out as a defensive end and transitioned to linebacker and then kind of went back to the defensive end role, so the more things that you can do and the different positions that you can play, it’s just going to help you in your total game. Being able to play defensive-end and linebacker, dropping coverage, it all helps.”
Ninkovich broke into the Patriots starting lineup in 2011, when the Patriots last played in the Super Bowl, losing to the New York Giants. His ability to play different roles (he even deep-snapped in one game this season), has been beneficial.
“He’s been able to see the game from the linebackers level and the defensive-line position, on the ball and off the ball,” said New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “When you gain that experience, it helps you as a player to better understand what everyone is doing around you.
“He’s a very smart guy. He understands the scheme that we run. He’s got a great skill set. We try to make sure we put him in position to use his skill set and not put him in a bad position.”
Ninkovich has shown a nose for the football. His 13 fumble recoveries since 2010 are more than any other NFL player. Houston’s J.J. Watt is second with 11.
Like Watt and Vrabel, he’s liable to show up on offense in goal-line situations. At Purdue, he caught two touchdown passes from future NFL quarterbacks Curtis Painter and Kyle Orton.
So if No. 50 reports as an eligible receiver, Ninkovich could further honor its previous owner.
“I’m just excited to put on a Patriots jersey,” Ninkovich said. “Actually, I was happy to have a number. I had been like 79 … 93 … terrible numbers with other teams. I could be 00 with the Patriots and I would have been happy.”