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Handy man

With a pair of interceptions against the Jets, Ninkovich again shows he's a good guy to have around

Former journeyman Rob Ninkovich is now a starter who in September earned a two-year, $4 million contract extension. Former journeyman Rob Ninkovich is now a starter who in September earned a two-year, $4 million contract extension. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / November 17, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - No one ever took Rob Ninkovich for a hands man.

Two interceptions Sunday night against the Jets go a long way in blowing that perception to bits, especially when one is returned for a 12-yard touchdown.

“He drops them in practice and catches them in games,’’ said Patriots defensive captain Jerod Mayo. “Hey, they come in twos with Rob, so we’re happy either way.’’

Ninkovich seems to pick the times when the most eyes are watching. The Patriots linebacker has two other picks in his career, both in a Monday nighter, last season against the Dolphins.

The first thing most observers had to do after his pick-6 against the Jets was check the roster to figure out who No. 50 was. But at this rate, he’ll make Ninkovich a household name, two nationally televised picks at a time.

“I’ll take it,’’ Ninkovich said. “That wouldn’t be a bad thing. I’d take that with open arms. But I’ve still got to keep continuing to perform.’’

Ninkovich’s story of obscurity to security is well-known. The Saints and Dolphins both passed on him. He landed in New England, where he worked his way up from fighting for time on special teams to earning a two-year, $4 million contract extension in September.

Ninkovich is used to the anonymity, as well as the slack-jawed surprise when he makes plays.

“It’s kind of been like that since I’ve been in high school, though, so it’s no new thing for me,’’ he said. “I just kind of go out there and play the best I can, and at the end of the game look back and see what I’ve done.’’

The story of his hands actually goes back to his days at Lincoln-Way Central High School in New Lenox, Ill., where he played tight end, running back, and defensive end.

“I caught a lot out of the backfield,’’ he said.

His path to a secure spot in the NFL wasn’t the easiest. No colleges made him offers out of high school, so he went to junior college in Joliet, Ill. After two years, he transferred to Purdue, even though it didn’t offer him a scholarship.

When he got there, he wasn’t even on the defensive side of the ball. He was a tight end, buried on the depth chart. By the time he left, he was a second-team All-Big Ten defensive end.

The Saints drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, then waived him a year later after he missed much of the year with a strained medial collateral ligament. That’s when the Dolphins found him, but he played only five games in parts of two seasons in Miami.

He probably went out on the longest limb when he decided long snapping for the Saints was the way to carve out a place for himself. He hated it, but felt it had to be done.

“You kind of just keep working and don’t let anything get you down,’’ he said. “Throughout my career, there’s been ups and downs. There’s been things that haven’t gone my way, but you can’t let that affect how you play because there’s always going to be things that set you back. You’ve just got to keep working.

“There’s a lot of things along the way that kind of make me happy to be where I’m at right now.’’

Ninkovich came to New England prior to the 2009 season, and if you ask Patriots coach Bill Belichick what he saw in Ninkovich that New Orleans and Miami didn’t, even he can’t pinpoint it.

“I don’t know,’’ Belichick said. “I can’t really speak for what happened in Miami or in New Orleans. We’ve seen guys - Wes Welker was cut by a team, [Tom] Brady went in the sixth round - it’s no perfect science. Rob’s come in here, he’s done a good job for us since the day he got here.’’

That’s what Ninkovich was hoping the Patriots would notice.

“I knew that this was an opportunity to come to an organization where they were going to let a guy come in and do anything that he can do well,’’ he said. “They’re going to put him in good places to make plays. So I knew that this was a good chance to maybe make an impact.’’

Now in his third season with the Patriots, he is completely comfortable in the system. He is making plays now that he said he wouldn’t have been able to make two years ago.

His second interception against the Jets was a prime example. Ninkovich spotted LaDainian Tomlinson coming out of the backfield, and caught quarterback Mark Sanchez glancing at him, so he jumped Tomlinson’s route.

“It’s just the more experience you have and the more reps you get at coverage and different things as a linebacker, you just start to see things better,’’ said Ninkovich.

His snaps have gone down recently, but his production has gone up.

“From week to week, there’s different roles that we all do as a defense,’’ he said, “so any time I’m out there and I’m fresh and I’m ready to roll, I have a little more giddy-up in my step, I guess.’’

Ninkovich hasn’t shaken the underdog label, and doesn’t have any desire to. There’s something about the element of surprise.

“It’s a good feeling,’’ he said, “but you’ve got to try to keep impressing people, keep people looking at you and saying, ‘Wow, that guy’s making good plays out there.’ ’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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