FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots were lean on proven pass rushers entering training camp after parting ways with defensive ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard in the offseason.

They’re downright skinny now following the retirement of versatile veteran Rob Ninkovich on Sunday.

Ninkovich, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, tied for third on the team in sacks with four last season despite missing four games while serving a league-imposed suspension after testing positive for a banned substance. He added a sack in the playoffs.

“If anyone knows about Patriots defense they think of (Ninkovich),” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “He’s a tone-setter, playmaker, and just does everything well. There’s not one thing that stands out. He just makes plays and gets everything done.”

At least he did.

Long, Sheard and Ninkovich combined for 13 of the Patriots’ 34 sacks (38.2 percent) and 13 of their 39 additional quarterback hits (33.3 percent) last season.


Third-year defensive end Trey Flowers and his team-leading seven sacks are back. Same goes for linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who had 2.5 sacks and an additional 5.5 quarterback hits, but that’s about it.

The Patriots will now turn to underachieving veterans Geneo Grissom, Kony Ealy and Van Noy along with rookies Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise and Harvey Langi in a bid to fill the void.

“There are a lot of guys out there competing,” Flowers said. “A lot of young guys, guys stepping into their role, finding their role, figuring out things, and we’re just trying to get better each and every day.”

The Patriots are hoping that improvement is swift because no matter how spectacular a secondary is – and the Patriots’ secondary has a chance to be special – it isn’t holding up without a consistent pass rush.

Grissom has lined up at left defensive end with the first string since the first day of camp. The Patriots are giving him every opportunity to finally live up to his status as a third-round pick (97th overall) in 2015.

The former Oklahoma standout was cut last season and spent time on the practice squad before working his way back onto to the 53-man roster and making his mark as a core special teamer. He has six tackles and a sack in 25 career games.


“It’s a great opportunity and I just have to go out and take advantage of it,” said the 6-foot-4 Grissom, who looks as if he added about 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason to his listed weight of 265.

“I’m going to do whatever it takes to find a role on the team. Whether it’s special teams or defense, whatever they ask me to do I’m going to do it.”

The Patriots traded for Ealy in March after the Carolina Panthers had enough of his unfulfilled potential. Ealy did have 14 sacks in 47 regular-season games with the Panthers and added three in Super Bowl 50, but he lacked consistency and maturity.

Ealy hasn’t gotten off to a great start in New England. He missed time during offseason workouts and was absent for the first day of camp because of an unknown – but now resolved – conflict with Coach Bill Belichick.

“I feel great coming out here,” Ealy said. “Communication is big here and I feel like I’m getting the communication down. Obviously, I have to keep coming out here and mastering my craft and taking advantage of my opportunities. Just have to keep on working.”

The Patriots picked up Van Noy in a midseason trade with Detroit last season after the Lions soured on the former second-round pick, who recorded just two sacks in 30 games for Detroit. In fairness, it should be noted the Lions didn’t fully use him as a pass rusher.


Van Noy, who had 26 sacks in 52 college games at BYU, had one sack in seven regular-season games for the Patriots and added a shared sack in three playoff games.

“I just want to come in and do my job and help out as best as I can,” Van Noy said. “I’m trying to get everybody on the same page, myself and as a unit. It takes 11 guys to do the job.”

Rivers, a third-round pick who was born in Augusta, Maine, is looking to make the jump from Youngstown State of the Football Championship Subdivision, and Wise is hoping to emulate the success – albeit a year sooner – of Flowers, his former Arkansas teammate. Flowers was a fourth-round pick in 2015, and the Patriots drafted Wise in the third round this year.

Langi, who played at BYU, was given $115,000 in guaranteed salary after going undrafted.

The only given at the moment is the Patriots entered camp thin on pass rushers, and now they’re even thinner without Ninkovich.

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