The New England Patriots, who will be off until training camp starts later this month, currently have 89 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on August 31 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the summer, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots defend their Super Bowl title.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s core kicking game contributors.
Name: Nate Ebner
Position: Strong safety/Special teamer
Jersey number: 43
Opening day age: 30
Size: 6’0, 215 lbs.
2018 review: After ending the 2017 season on injured reserve with a torn ACL, Nate Ebner was scheduled to hit free agency in 2018. He never actually made it to the open market, though, as the Patriots signed him to a two-year contract extension in early March worth a total of $5.0 million — a respectable number for a career special teamer, and one that showed New England’s confidence in the veteran heading into a new season.
Being confident in Ebner proved to be a smart decision by the Patriots. Even though the nominal strong safety played only a single defensive snap all year long — in week two against the Jacksonville Jaguars — he was a cornerstone of the team due to his role on special teams: the former sixth-round draft pick and part-time rugby player led the club in kicking game snaps, being on the field for 405 of a possible 545 snaps (74.3%).
During the regular season, Ebner was active in all but one of New England’s sixteen games (he missed week twelve due to a knee issue). Being on the field for 329 of 453 snaps (72.6%), he registered a combined 13 tackles — leading the Patriots in this category as well. In the postseason, Ebner played 76 snaps (of 92; 82.6%) in three games and added another pair of tackles in his role as a gunner on both the punt and kickoff coverage units.
Ebner also was a core member of the Patriots’ blocking units, either on the front-line on kickoffs or as the personal protector in punting situations. As such, the Ohio State product helped set up the blocking schemes in front of him and give punter Ryan Allen space and time on a consistent basis: with Ebner lining up at the heart of the unit, New England had no punts blocked throughout the season.
And even though the Patriots’ coverage teams were inconsistent early on during the regular season — as a result opposing punt returners gained 1.1 yards more per runback than New England’s; the Patriots’ kickoff returners were +1.6 — Ebner again proved himself a valuable member of the unit all year long. Without his stability, experience and leadership, the mid-season turnaround in punt coverage likely would not have been possible.
2019 preview: Entering the final season of the new contract he signed last year, Ebner is scheduled to hit the Patriots’ books with a salary cap hit of $2.79 million. While the number is considerable for a player almost exclusively lining up on special teams, it reflects the 30-year-old’s role and standing on the team: he is part of New England’s core of coverage players alongside Matthew Slater, Brandon King and Jonathan Jones.
As such, Ebner will resume his usual role on the Patriots’ four units in 2019: he will see extensive playing time in the punting and kickoff game, and once again finish among the group’s leaders in playing time — don’t be surprised if he is on the field for 70-80% of special teams snaps — and tackles. And even though his contributions on defense will remain close to non-existent, Ebner does not have to worry about his job: the one he is paid to do, he still does at an exceptionally high level.