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updated: 10/26/2013 10:53 PM

Even with Bears off, there's plenty to watch

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  • New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) has 35 tackles and 1 sack this season.

      New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) has 35 tackles and 1 sack this season.
    Associated Press

 
By Mike Wilkening
wilkening.michael@gmail.com

The Bears are on bye on Sunday, which affords fans a chance to catch up on other things.

For those inclined to spend the day brushing up on the NFL's other teams as opposed to catching up on household work, we're here to help. Here's a primer on three players with local connections whose games will be broadcast locally.

Happy scouting. It sure beats raking leaves. Oh, does it ever beat raking leaves.

•Game to watch: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (noon, CBS).

Local product to watch: Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (No. 50).

Local connections: Joliet Junior College (2002-2003); Lincoln-Way Central High School (Class of 2002). Played at Purdue (2004-05) after transferring from Joliet Junior College.

Ninkovich had a strong collegiate career, posting a 16-sack season for Joliet in 2003 and enjoying two productive campaigns at defensive end for Purdue.

Still, finding his NFL niche took time.

The Saints took him in the fifth round in 2006, put him at linebacker, then waived him the next year. The Dolphins picked him up, but he could never quite break through in Miami. The Saints brought him back late in 2008. He tried long-snapping, but the Saints would let him go once more in the summer of 2009.

The Patriots signed him shortly thereafter, and by 2010 he had worked his way up from reserve to starter on defense. Now, the 29-year-old Ninkovich is one of the Patriots' core defenders. The first-string left defensive end in the Patriots' 4-3 scheme, Ninkovich has notched 35 tackles and 1 sack this season, starting all seven games for first-place New England.

In September, he signed a three-year contract extension.

"He's come in here and gotten better each year," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters earlier this season. "He's gotten a bigger role for us each year. He's played linebacker, defensive end, played all special teams.

"He's a versatile player that's given us a lot of production and a hard-working guy that I think is a well-respected player on the team."

Belichick indicated he appreciated Ninkovich's approach to his work.

"Like everybody else around here, everything he's gotten he's earned," Belichick said. "He had no right or entitlement to anything; he just came in here and earned it. He's been doing it for several years now."

Should the Dolphins' offense fumble Sunday, don't be surprised if Ninkovich emerges with the ball. He has 10 fumble recoveries since 2010.

•Game to watch: Dallas Cowboys at Detroit Lions (noon, Fox).

Local product to watch: Cowboys offensive tackle Doug Free (No. 68).

Local connections: Northern Illinois (2002-2006).

After a 2012 season in which his starting job looked at risk, and after an off-season in which he took a pay cut, Free is having a solid 2013 campaign at right tackle for NFC East-leading Dallas.

Pro Football Focus, which grades player performance, ranked Free as the No. 6 offensive tackle through seven weeks. Free, per PFF, has allowed just 2 sacks in seven games.

"Doug's really doing a nice job," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told reporters earlier this month. "I do think he's playing the best football he's played here in the last few years."

On Sunday, Bears fans might occasionally see a familiar face lined up across from Free. Israel Idonije, who played for the Bears from 2004-2012, could get some snaps at left defensive end for Detroit. Idonije has played in all seven games for the Lions this season, notching 4 tackles in a reserve role.

•Game to watch: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings (7:30 p.m., NBC)

Local product to watch: Packers outside linebacker Nate Palmer (No. 51)

Local connections: Illinois State (2011-2012); Illinois (2008-2010); Simeon High School (Class of 2008).

In the Packers' first five games, Palmer's playing time was limited to a handful of special-teams snaps.

Then injuries hit and suddenly the sixth-round pick was one of the few healthy options at his position. With veterans Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Mike Neal ailing, Palmer made his first NFL start last Sunday against Cleveland.

Playing the majority of Green Bay's defensive snaps, Palmer made 6 tackles as Green Bay rolled 31-13.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy gave a positive but measured assessment of the play of Palmer and fellow outside linebacker Andy Mulumba, calling the rookies "solid" and "assignment-sound" against the Browns.

"They definitely took a step forward from last week, and I look for them to get better this week and hopefully have more of an impact against the Vikings," McCarthy said.

Palmer (17 career sacks at Illinois State) could again get some defensive reps Sunday night. However, if Perry is healthy enough to play, it could eat into Palmer's playing time.

If Palmer does get some work on defense, it may come at right outside linebacker. He also could see some time on special teams.

•Mike Wilkening has covered the NFL for more than a decade. You can read his work at Pro Football Talk, The Linemakers at Sporting News and NBC New York, among other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @mikewilkening. Email him at wilkening.michael@gmail.com.

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