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Patriots' Rob Ninkovich, Jonathan Casillas make Saints feel regret, jealousy

1/28/2015

Rob Ninkovich has always been one of the New Orleans Saints' biggest regrets -- a storyline I've written about several times over the years for two reasons.

Not only did the Saints let Ninkovich get away -- twice, as a matter of fact -- but he also won't go away.

The versatile defensive end/linebacker has been thriving ever since he finally found a place in the NFL with the New England Patriots in 2009, and he's now set to make his second Super Bowl appearance Sunday on his 31st birthday.

Ninkovich led the Patriots with eight sacks this year, matching the eight sacks he had in 2013 and the eight sacks he had in 2012.

That's eight more than he ever had in New Orleans, despite being drafted in the fifth round out of Purdue in 2006 and spending a total of three summers with the Saints.

His first two were derailed by knee injuries. Then after Ninkovich joined the Miami Dolphins, the Saints re-signed him late in 2008 and actually tried to move him to long snapper in the summer of 2009.

"So it tells you how much I know," Saints coach Sean Payton admitted, cracking on himself last year before the Saints played at New England. "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."

The Saints' biggest issue with Ninkovich (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) was finding the right fit back when they played a traditional 4-3 defense, since he was something of a 'tweener end/linebacker.

New England had no such problem, though, first using him as an outside linebacker when they played more 3-4 looks and now using him as a 4-3 end.

"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," Ninkovich said during Super Bowl media day Tuesday, according to transcripts. "Being able to play defensive end and linebacker, dropping coverage, it all helps."

Ninkovich has always said the Saints' snubs helped motivate him and worked out for the best -- especially since he met his wife Paige while in New Orleans. But he has also stressed that his competitive drive never allowed him to accept the Saints' vision for him, especially when Payton insisted that long snapper was his best path to the roster. As Ninkovich repeated to the New Orleans Advocate's Nick Underhill on Tuesday, "I didn't believe anything they were telling me."

Speaking of that competitive drive, by the way, while reading up on Ninkovich, I just stumbled on this awesome story for the first time by Jackie MacMullan for ESPNBoston in 2012 about how Ninkovich first got noticed in New England by taking on veteran offensive lineman Matt Light in practice.

Another former Saints linebacker -- Jonathan Casillas -- will also suit up for the Patriots on Sunday. Casillas, a special teams specialist, had the good fortune of being traded to New England in the middle of the season from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who finished with the NFL's worst record).

Casillas spent his first four seasons with the Saints as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin from 2009-2012 before signing with Tampa Bay. He told Underhill that Payton called him Tuesday morning to tell him he's jealous.

Casillas also talked about how much he valued his time in New Orleans, learning from veteran leaders like Jonathan Vilma, Curtis Lofton, Will Smith and Drew Brees in a "tremendous locker room." And he said he was "very surprised" to see the way the Saints' season played out in 2014, especially since they uncharacteristically lost so many home games.

"It was shocking for me to see that," Casillas said.

Unless I'm missing someone, Ninkovich and Casillas are the only two Super Bowl participants who spent any meaningful time with the Saints. At least two former undrafted rookies who spent their first summer in New Orleans are in the game, though -- Seattle Seahawks long snapper Clint Gresham and tight end Keavon Milton.