The New England Patriots currently have the maximum of 90 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on September 1 and ultimately make the team. Over the next weeks, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots recapture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Today, the series continues with one of the Patriots’ top special teamers.
Name: Nate Ebner
Position: Strong safety / special teamer
Jersey number: 43
Opening day age: 29
Size: 6’0, 215 lbs.
2017 review: Entering the final year of his contract, Nate Ebner’s role on the Patriots was set in stone: the veteran would again serve as a core special teamer in 2017, appearing regularly on all four kicking game units and only sparingly on defense. In fact, the nominal strong safety did not even play one single defensive snap over the nine games he appeared in last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in week 12.
He did appear on the field for 172 special teams snaps for comparison (of 451, 38.1%), and was once again among the Patriots’ most productive kicking game players no matter his usage. As a gunner on both the punt and kickoff coverage units, he finished tied for second on the team during the regular season with eight tackles – despite playing noticeably fewer games than his fellow special teamers.
Ebner also was a core member of the Patriots’ blocking units. Typically serving as personal punt protector, he helped give punter Ryan Allen space and time: New England had no punts blocked throughout the season as the unit was able to finish with a net differential of +3.6 yards per punt return. Ebner also served as a front-line blocker on the kickoff unit and helped the unit achieve a +3.3 yards average per runback.
As mentioned above, however, Ebner’s season came to an abrupt end in week 12 against the Miami Dolphins: New England ran a fake punt with the veteran receiving the snap and carrying it for 14 yards and a new set of downs. Near the end of his carry, his knee buckled and he remained on the ground with what later turned out to be a torn ACL. The Patriots placed him on injured reserve the very next day, ending his season.
2018 preview: Ebner was scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency following the 2017 season but never actually made it to the open market: On March 13, the Patriots re-signed the veteran on a two-year, $5.0 million contract that will hit the team’s salary cap with $2.03 million this season – a respectable number for a career special teamer, and one that effectively makes him a roster lock despite coming off season-ending injury.
Six months removed from it, Ebner was back in action during the Patriots’ OTA and minicamp practices. While he was not yet taking part in drills, he was part of a group doing rehabilitation and conditioning work during the sessions – potentially a good sign for his progress heading towards training camp. While there is still a chance he starts camp on the physically unable to perform list, he would certainly come off it at some point prior or during the season.
And once Ebner is fully back, he will resume his role as one of the Patriots’ core guys on special teams: The 29-year old will see extensive playing time on all four special teams units and once again finish among the group’s statistical leaders in snaps and tackles. And even though his contributions on defense are projected to remain quasi-non-existent, Ebner does not have to worry about his job.