FOXBORO, Mass. -- New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich announced his retirement Sunday after eight durable, productive seasons with the Patriots.
While coach Bill Belichick showed rare, raw emotion during a nice tribute during the retirement press conference, there is also the practical matter to address: Ninkovich's retirement leaves an already-thin defensive end spot even more dubious.
Trey Flowers, who led the team with seven sacks last fall in his second season, is the only defensive end on the depth chart with any real experience in a Patriots uniform. The rest of the uncertain group includes Kony Ealy, an offseason trade addition who had 14 sacks in three season with the Carolina Panthers, third-year special teamer Geneo Grissom and rookies Derek Rivers (third round) and Deatrich Wise Jr. (fourth round).
The defensive end spot and overall pass rush is clearly the weakest area of the defending champs' roster.
But while outsiders see loss of leadership and lack of experience, the players see a time to shine.
"No doubt. Rob was a great player and did some great things around here. That just leaves opportunity for guys to step in and guys to pick up the pace," Flowers said, chuckling when he was called the elder statesmen of the group.
"I still have a lot to learn. I have a lot of room to grow. But it's a thing where you do understand that you probably do have the most experience as far playing time in the D-end room. So you just have to be able to carry yourself in that manner and understand you have a lot of other people looking up to you."
Ninkovich, who was a fifth-round pick of the Saints in 2006, arrived in New England as a mid-camp body in the summer of 2009. He evolved into a mainstay and leader of Belichick's defense. He started all 16 games from 2011-2015. He finished his Patriots career with 46 sacks. He added five interceptions, 10 forced fumbles and 14 fumble recoveries as a timely playmaker.
Belichick did not miss his chance to reflect on what it meant.
"We just go on and on and on. I mean, there are so many big plays he made through the course of his career," Belichick said at Ninkovich's retirement press conference.
Ninkovich's announcement took place in the media workroom at Gillette Stadium shortly after a training camp practice. The unprecedented, unique scene saw virtually every member of the current roster in attendance, including Tom Brady, as well as the entirety of the coaching staff.
"You can see the testament of everybody here what Rob means to all of us," Belichick said, addressing Ninkovich directly.
"Never coached a more unselfish player, and I've coached a lot of them, but you go right up in there in that top echelon group. It was always about the team. You've had a tremendous career. You've earned every single thing that you've gotten. Nobody gave you anything; nobody had worked harder for it.
"As a coach I'm extremely proud of what you've accomplished and you earned every single thing -- all those sacks, all those forced fumbles, all those tackles, all those big plays. You got there with hard work and perseverance, dedication, preparation.
"All the things that we preach for our program, Rob epitomizes."
Ninkovich was equally as emotional in his final words as a Patriot.
"Coach, I gave you everything I had. I hope it was enough. I love this game. Thank you," Ninkovich said to close his emotional presser.
QB Tom Brady will turn 40 on Thursday. The reigning Super Bowl MVP will celebrate the same way he has for nearly two decades -- with training camp practice. "This guy is still playing this game, so hats off to him. That's amazing," said Patriots WR Brandin Cooks. "That's a special milestone to hit and I'm happy for him."
WR Julian Edelman and new CB Stephon Gilmore got into a classic post-play training camp scuffle Tuesday. The slot receiver threw the big-money free agent signing to the ground and then landed a couple punches before it was broken up by teammates and staff.
"That's football. I mean you have a lot of guys out here competing. One thing leads to another. But it's football," third-year DE Trey Flowers said.
Both players were kicked out of practice.