Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich returns an interception for a touchdown… (Patrick McDermott/Getty…)
They are the NFL castoffs, the rejects, the expendables tossed aside by teams that viewed them as too old, too expensive, not good enough, whatever.
And now those players are counting their blessings — and their victories.
New England's Rob Ninkovich is someone who knows the feeling. He wanted to play linebacker in New Orleans, but couldn't even make the roster as a long snapper. The Saints showed him the door. Before that, Miami didn't want him. Ninkovich finally landed with the Patriots, for whom he has established himself as a reliable outside linebacker capable of having a big game.
Ninkovich had one of those Sunday night, picking off a pair of Mark Sanchez passes — one returned for a touchdown — in a 37-16 victory against the New York Jets that established the pecking order in the AFC East. It was the second two-interception game of Ninkovich's career, the first coming last season against the Dolphins.
"He stepped up big for us," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "Just knowing the right situation, and he was there. That was his job. He knew where he had to be. That's just playing good situational football."
In describing his opportunity with the Patriots, Ninkovich last season called it "my chance to show people that I'm deserving of being on a team and playing on a team — that I could actually go out there and have a positive impact, and not just be a long snapper."
Ninkovich is but one of many recycled players who have proved this season that they still have a lot to contribute. Among the others:
Kicker David Akers, San Francisco — A five-time Pro Bowl kicker, Akers was released by Philadelphia after last season and the Eagles decided to go with a rookie. It was a blow to his ego, sure, but Akers also has a realistic view of the business of football.
"People say, 'Oh, you've got job security,'" he said this summer. "But even the best job in the NFL, it's a one-year deal for everybody."
So far, the left-footed Akers is making the most of his move to the Left Coast — on top of not being in Philadelphia for the Eagles' implosion. He's made all five of his attempts from 50 yards or longer this season, and has made 15 field goals in a row. The 49ers are 8-1 and in first place by a wide margin in the NFC West, and Akers is on pace for 162 points this season. That would obliterate the team record of 138 set by Jerry Rice in 1987.
Receiver Laurent Robinson, Dallas — Robinson didn't last too long with Atlanta or St. Louis, but he could carve out a nice career with the Cowboys if he keeps playing the way he has. Over the past month, he has emerged as one of Tony Romo's favorite targets, catching 27 of 36 passes thrown his way for 441 yards and four touchdowns — two of those coming Sunday against Buffalo. So far, he's quite an upgrade from the far more expensive Roy Williams.
"I really love playing here," Robinson told reporters Sunday. "I love everything about Dallas and wearing the star."
Cornerback Tim Jennings, Chicago — When Indianapolis played Chicago in the Super Bowl, Jennings was on the Colts' sideline. That team let him walk in the spring of 2010, though, and the Bears picked him up. Since then, Jennings has played surprisingly well, starting opposite Charles Tillman and proving that at 5 feet 8, 185 pounds, he can be just as physical as bigger corners.
Through nine games, Jennings has 45 tackles — six off his career high — and he picked off a pass Sunday in a 37-13 rout of Detroit, one of the Bears' four interceptions (by four players) in that game.
There's one statistic that should matter most to Jennings: His new team is 6-3. His old one is 0-10.