FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The retirement of veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich didn’t come as a surprise to the New England Patriots, but that doesn’t mean they won’t consider every option to make sure they can ably fill the void.
Why not Dwight Freeney?
Last seen in Super Bowl LI creating havoc for Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and quarterback Tom Brady, the 37-year-old Freeney is a free agent and -- perhaps buoyed by being one of the best defenders on the field in that game -- isn’t yet ready to call it a career.
It isn’t known if the Patriots would seriously consider signing Freeney this year, but they have pondered the possibility in the past. In 2013, they brought him to town for a visit, although they never discussed a contract.
“I was behind enemy doors!” Freeney said with a laugh when asked about the visit prior to Super Bowl LI. “That was a great experience. Those are great guys, man. I have so much respect for what they do over there, and a lot of friends on the staff.”
Freeney got to know Bill Belichick from playing in the Pro Bowl when Belichick was a coach, and when Freeney was in his final year at Syracuse in 2001, current Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was a graduate assistant.
After all these years, and some of the epic Patriots-Colts games in which Freeney's pass rush once had Brady referring to him as the game's most intimidating defender, could the sides finally be a match?
Freeney is no longer an every-down player, and he is someone whose practice load would have to be managed, but Patricia and Co. have a history of making situations like those work. The Super Bowl showed he still has juice in his legs. He is a pure pass-rusher, which might be the biggest weakness on the current roster, as third-year player Trey Flowers led the team with seven sacks last season.
Of course, Freeney isn’t the only player for the Patriots to consider, and opportunities sometimes present themselves when teams least expect it. That’s what happened with Ninkovich, who was signed by the Patriots after training camp began in 2009 when the Saints cut him.
So perhaps the Patriots, who have sometimes been playing third-year man Geneo Grissom in Ninkovich’s spot early in training camp, will take more of a wait-and-see approach and assess their internal options first.
Maybe trade acquisition Kony Ealy, with a different-than-anticipated start to his Patriots tenure, suddenly turns it on. It’s possible that rookies Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise develop quickly, or versatile linebackers Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin somehow factor into the mix.
But when it comes to the ability to bend around the edge and threaten a quarterback with a speed rush or spin move, Freeney would be an instant upgrade.
One just has to replay the Super Bowl to see that.