BOSTON >> The NFL suspended New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich on Friday for the first four games of the regular season for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing substances.
It is the latest blow to the Patriots, who will also be without quarterback Tom Brady the first four games as he serves a league-imposed suspension for his role in the "Deflategate" case.
Like Brady, Ninkovich will not be eligible to return to the Patriots' active roster until Oct. 3 following the team's game against the Buffalo Bills.
The 32-year-old has not played this preseason after suffering a reported triceps injury during a joint training camp practice with the Saints on Aug. 9. He had returned to practice recently, but had only participated in light conditioning.
Ninkovich was a defensive captain in 2015 and had 52 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks.
More than his production, he has been New England's ironman on defense, playing in 102 consecutive regular-season games. That is behind only Green Bay's Julius Peppers and Indianapolis' Kendall Langford, who have both played in 128 straight games.
The Patriots had already been making plans for Ninkovich to be out to start the regular season because of the triceps injury, and have gotten solid production out of free agent pickup Chris Long this preseason.
Long started all four preseason games and is expected to start in the regular season, along with Jabaal Sheard.
Ninkovich recently praised how well Long has caught on to the Patriots' system, calling him a "sponge" since his arrival. He said sitting out with this injury has been particularly difficult after not missing a regular-season start the past six seasons.
"It's really hard, I haven't had to deal with anything like this in a long time," Ninkovich said last week. "So I'm just trying to work as hard as I can, and do the only thing I know how to do, and that's try to work hard to get back."