The Saints drafted Ninkovich in the fifth round in 2006. But they actually cut him twice -- in both 2007 and 2009 -- before he finally found his place in the NFL with New England.
It certainly didn’t help that Ninkovich suffered knee injuries in both the ’06 and ’07 preseasons. But the Saints also simply never found a role they envisioned Ninkovich playing in their defense. The Saints were running a 4-3 scheme at the time, and the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Ninkovich seemed more suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4.
Saints coach Sean Payton regrettably recalled this week that he actually tried to get Ninkovich to switch full-time to long snapper to earn a spot on the roster.
“So it tells you how much I know,” Payton said.
“One of the things that keeps you up at night during training camp is making the proper decisions and not allowing a good player to leave the building,” Payton expanded. “We have been fortunate now in year eight [since Payton arrived in 2006] that we are not talking about a litany of players. But he is a good example of someone that we drafted and yet I don’t know if we had a real good vision of what we wanted to do with him. And then it only gets worse because he’s back in the building a few years later and we have a second go at it, and we don’t capitalize on that.
“First off, he’s an extremely motivated player, hardworking, smart. He has all of those qualities that we look for. And those are the types of things that keep you up at night as a coach is having a good football player like that right under your wing twice and not being able to take advantage of it.”
One other player that fits that description is All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, who was briefly with the Saints as an injury replacement in 2006 before he went on to star with the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens.
Ninkovich, meanwhile, said he has no ill feelings toward the Saints or Payton -- especially since things ultimately worked out so well for him. He’s in his fourth year as a starter with the Patriots, where he has racked up 20.5 sacks in five seasons.
He’s also glad for his layover in New Orleans because that’s where he met his wife, Paige.
“At the time when you’re a young guy, you don’t realize necessarily how things work. So now looking back on it, it’s been a blessing for everything to kind of happen the way it did and give me the chance to come here and play and make a name for myself,” Ninkovich said. “It goes back to when I was a rookie, getting hurt didn’t help me. It set me back, and with the NFL being a business like it is, they’re just trying to get the best guys on the field that they can.
“It was a great learning experience for me, not only just in general but in life. It was a life lesson to pursue your goals and go after things that you want. It just kept me motivated, really, and to stay hungry for my long-term goals and playing in the NFL.”