1. Bucs

Patriots' Rob Ninkovich was early gem for Jason Licht

Rob Ninkovich sacks Josh Freeman during a game between the Bucs and Patriots in 2013. [EPA/MATT CAMPBELL]
Rob Ninkovich sacks Josh Freeman during a game between the Bucs and Patriots in 2013. [EPA/MATT CAMPBELL]
Published Aug. 1, 2017

In three-plus years under general manager Jason Licht, the Bucs' front office has taken pride in its ability to find hidden gems missed by the rest of the NFL, in undrafted players like Cameron Brate and Adam Humphries and astute waiver-wire claims like Jacquies Smith.

And while Licht makes it clear that it's wrong to credit just one person with a team landing a certain player, one of his best examples for such a move panning out is Patriots outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who retired this weekend at 33.

This week in 2009, Ninkovich had been cut as a long-snapper by the Saints at the start of training camp, having totaled six tackles in three seasons as a pass-rusher with New Orleans and Miami. Licht was in his first season back with the Patriots as director of player personnel, and when he saw Ninkovich had been cut, he lobbied to Bill Belichick to sign him. The metaphor front-office guys use is "standing on a table" to make a strong case for adding a player, and Ninkovich was a guy that Licht stood on a table for, so to speak.

Long-shot success is relative for a franchise that has had sixth-rounder Tom Brady and eighth-rounder Troy Brown and undrafted Adam Vinatieri, but Ninkovich was a wild success for New England. He started every game from 2011-15 — all 80 — and got 34 sacks in that span. Over his last six seasons, Ninkovich started in 15 playoff games, getting a sack in the Super Bowl win against Seattle after the 2014 season, the first of two Super Bowl wins in his final three years.

General managers usually sink or swim on how their top draft picks produce, but the late-round finds and late-summer signings that really pan out can be crucial to improving a team's depth, or even its starting lineup. Licht hasn't been with the Patriots since 2011, but one of his moves helped the team much longer.


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