Player: S Nate Ebner
September 1st, 2016 age: 27
How acquired: Drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 draft out of Ohio State
Why he should stay: There is no franchise that values special teams performers more than the New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick. Ebner is one of the core special teams players, alongside Matthew Slater, Brandon Bolden, Jonathan Freeny, and Brandon King. Slater, Bolden, and Freeny are all under contract through the 2016 season, while King is currently an exclusive rights free agent.
No player has played more on special teams since Ebner was drafted in 2012. His 1,217 snaps are ahead of Slater (1,142), Tavon Wilson (970), Brandon Bolden (865), and Stephen Gostkowski (773). With Slater turning 31 this season, it's fair to wonder who will be his eventual replacement, or at least his protege. While King is obviously a great choice for the future, and would be a far cheaper option than Ebner, it would make a lot of sense to carry both players moving forward.
Why he should leave: The Patriots can keep King for a lot cheaper, and could probably retain Tavon Wilson in Ebner's role if Ebner threatens to leave. There's very little chance that Ebner will receive a contract that tops Slater, and there's probably a ceiling where he won't be able to surpass Bolden at $1.16 million per year, due to Bolden offering some value as a depth player on offense.
A team could very well offer Ebner a contract worth $1.5 million per year to be the cornerstone of their special teams unit, and that could price out the Patriots. Money and opportunity is always the bottom line.
Verdict: Ebner offers very little value on defense, other than as an extra run stuffer in goal line defense packages. That's pretty much the only time he ever sees the field on defense, which means it's hardly likely that some teach will poach him for his defensive upside. He is a great special teams player that can and will receive plenty of attention on the open market.
But will teams value his performance as highly as New England will? And, on the other side, will Belichick and Caserio pay up for a second special teams star?
Typically the Patriots have paid Slater and then a special teams linebacker (Niko Koutovides, Tracy White, Chris White, Jonathan Freeny) to be the core of the unit, and then fleshed it out with back-up running backs, safeties, and linebackers. Slater gets paid. The linebackers are interchangeable on a yearly basis and get paid the veteran minimum. Everyone else is an undrafted free agent or back-up.
Special teams players like Brandon Bolden, Patrick Chung, Kyle Arrington, and Devin McCourty all offer additional value on their offensive or defensive side of the ball. New England has rising 2nd year player Jordan Richards to possibly take over for Ebner's snaps, and the Patriots have never struggled to find other special teams players in free agency.
As Freeny is considered the third linebacker, perhaps Ebner can be the veteran "linebacker" as far as the pure special teams unit is concerned. The Patriots should offer Ebner something in the realm of $0.9 million per season (maybe a hair lower), which is roughly around what players like the Whites and Koutovides earned.
If Ebner receives more money elsewhere, that's just how free agency works. Can't keep them all. Richards, King, Jonathan Bostic, and others will be waiting for their chance.