Ninkovich key special teams performer

Updated: December 12, 2009, 10:23 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In an under-the-radar move, the Patriots have signed an under-the-radar contributor to a contract extension. Outside linebacker/defensive end Rob Ninkovich recently inked a new deal through 2011 which includes a $350,000 signing bonus.

Ninkovich, who earns a base salary of $535,000 this season, is scheduled to earn $650,000 in 2010 and $650,000 in 2011. The new contract includes workout bonuses and playing time incentives in 2010 and 2011.

The extension was finalized Nov. 6, but because the Patriots generally don't announce such transactions, it has flown under the radar.

Ninkovich (6-foot-2, 255 pounds) initially joined the team August 2 on a one-year, $535,000 contract. Prior to joining the Patriots, he had been with the Saints, where he was focusing solely on long snapping.

In New England this season, Ninkovich has made his primary contributions on special teams return and coverage units (six tackles). As a backup on defense, he has registered six tackles, one sack and one pass defended in 48 snaps.

With starting outside linebacker Adalius Thomas at odds with coach Bill Belichick -- a situation which heated up this past Wednesday when Thomas was among four players sent home for being late to an 8 a.m. meeting on a snowy, icy morning -- Ninkovich could now see his playing time increase.

Last month, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was praising his personnel staff for discovering lesser-known but productive players, and the 25-year-old Ninkovich was one player that he mentioned.

"Rob wasn't even with a team at the start of training camp, and he has made our team and fulfills a lot of different roles on our team," Belichick said at the time. "Guys like that, you have that player on your team, and you say 'I can't believe this guy wasn't on somebody's team.'"

The extension with Ninkovich highlights the Patriots' apparent strategy when it comes to positioning the team with the NFL's uncertain labor forecast in mind. Mainly, they have focused on moderate extensions that don't put them at significant risk in the event of a lockout in 2011.

In addition to Ninkovich, the Patriots have extended the deals of offensive linemen Nick Kaczur (2012) and Mark LeVoir (2011), receiver Sam Aiken (2011), linebacker Eric Alexander (2010) this season. An agreement had also been struck with linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, but that has not been finalized.

Meanwhile, the Patriots and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who is in line to command a hefty raise in playing out the final year of his contract, haven't been able to strike a deal.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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