When the New England Patriots selected defensive back Nate Ebner late in the 2012 NFL Draft, fans and analysts alike reacted in shock. “Who on Earth is this guy?” many asked, and rightly so: the sixth round pick had only ever played three snaps on defense at Ohio State. He played rugby in high school and actually walked onto the Buckeye squad.
Although a casual observer might expect Ebner to be a long shot to make the team, the former rugby player made a strong case for himself to be on the 53-man roster after performing well in Monday night’s preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Ebner recorded a leaping interception on what might have been a long touchdown to Jeremy Maclin, then returned it a solid distance in a surprisingly adept display of ball carrier vision. The defensive back had a solid week of practice with a pair of picks and stepped it up during the game with another. That’s not bad for the 197th overall pick.
Most New England beat writers (myself included) expected Ebner to be relegated to the gunner position on special teams; the general hope was he could be groomed by special teams captain Matthew Slater to be the next Larry Izzo of sorts. After all, Ebner had little experience on defense and had not played much in college. When details about him slowly trickled to the public, however, he became a fan favorite.
There was the picture of him with electrical tape wound around his head to stop a bleeding injury – because the team was out of medical tape. There was the picture of him carrying the American flag out before his teammates in honor of 9/11 – because the team looked to him as a leader. There was the story of him not just playing rugby, but being recognized as the Most Valuable Player for the US team at the IRB Junior World Championships.
The college tape is also quite telling. One video in particular shows some surprisingly outstanding special teams work from Ebner.
- 0:22 – Tackle on kickoff team
- 1:33 – Tackle on kickoff team
- 2:52 – Nearly blocks a punt
- 2:59 – Tackle on punt team
- 3:22 – Sack
This video is instrumental in showing that he’s not just a gunner; he can play multiple special teams in different ways.
- 0:00 – Sets up a big return on kickoff return team
- 0:21 – Tackle on punt team
- 1:56 – Tackle on kickoff team
- 3:02 – Sets up a big return on kickoff return team
Yesterday, our own Joe Soriano intimated that it was a big night for Ebner. Number 43 showed enough flash that I’m willing to make a bold prediction: Nate Ebner will be a member of the New England Patriots active roster. Believe me, I realize how much of an uphill battle he has. The Pats have a multitude of defensive backs, he’s still learning the defense, he’s only a rookie, and his greatest value is already filled by Matthew Slater. He wasn’t perfect in his game against the Eagles; he lost contain on a touchdown run and he was actually a bit too shallow in his depth for his interception.
Ebner does, however, possess enough natural talent (his speed at his Pro Day is what led to the Patriots inquiring about him) and a clear knack for learning coverages, to the extent that I believe his interception is what cements his place on this team. He may not be the guy whose jersey you wear, but his value comes elsewhere, in ways fans often overlook.
You can follow Christopher Field on Twitter @ChrisDField.