Unless you’re a Patriots fan — and perhaps a diehard one, at that — chances are you haven’t heard of Nate Ebner.
Special teams players, even good ones, almost always fly under the radar. Especially special-teamers who are converted rugby players.
But the 31-year-old Ebner could very well become one of the Giants’ most important acquisitions in what is a most important offseason roster-building process.
It’s just a one-year contract for Ebner, but he’ll be an invaluable part of the Giants under first-year coach Joe Judge, who came to the Patriots the same year that Ebner did and has coached the special teams ace every day of his pro career.
The 6-foot, 215-pound Ebner has never been a regular position player, but he has been an indispensable member of the Patriots’ special teams throughout his career. And if you know anything about Bill Belichick, you know that his early years as an NFL special teams coach created a lasting impression that has extended to his time as a future Hall of Fame coach in New England.
Judge now inherits the mantle as the Giants’ head coach and can use Ebner as an example of what he wants from his players. While other Patriots players have scattered elsewhere to other Belichick disciples this offseason — center Ted Karras and linebacker Kyle Van Noy to Brian Flores’ Dolphins; defensive tackle Danny Shelton, defensive back Duron Harmon and linebacker Jamie Collins to Matt Patricia’s Lions — Judge now gets Ebner.
It’s commonplace for head coaches and former assistants to bring in players familiar with their systems when they work elsewhere. Belichick brought Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson with him to Cleveland in his first head-coaching gig. Bill Parcells lured Curtis Martin away from the Patriots when he worked for the Jets. Mike Holmgren made Matt Hasselbeck his quarterback in Seattle after moving on from Green Bay.
Those players are valuable not only from an on-field perspective, but they help spread the coach’s message to the rest of the players. That’s one of the most important tools in creating roster cohesion, and Ebner now will perform that vital role with the Giants. At the same time, he’ll provide the kind of aggressive, intelligent play that made him one of the league’s best special-teamers in his time in New England.
Matthew Slater has been the longtime leader of New England’s special teams, and both Ebner and Judge have learned a ton from him. In a perfect world, it would have been Slater signing with the Giants, but Belichick values Slater too much and made retaining him one of the first priorities. Slater’s locker room presence will be essential in helping the Patriots turn the page after the departure of Tom Brady, and his special teams play remains at an elite level.
Belichick had a soft spot for Ebner, too, and he would have preferred to keep him alongside Slater. But in the age of the salary cap, you can’t keep everyone, and hard choices are required. That said, Belichick considered Ebner one of his very best players, as evidenced by these comments late in the 2018 season, just before the Patriots went on to win their sixth Super Bowl title.
It was at a time when Ebner was forced to play safety because of multiple injuries to the Patriots’ other defensive backs.
“Nate was working through some stuff, so he ended up playing safety,” Belichick said. “So he’s played outside [at cornerback], he’s played safety, he’s played inside in the nickel spot, as well as playing multiple roles in the kicking game. We’ve added a lot to his responsibilities. He’s very, very professional, well-prepared, dependable, mature, takes every part of his job seriously. Run force, pass coverage, zone, safety, corner, special teams, whatever it is. I think his leadership, his communication, his professionalism has been outstanding. Been great to work with. Couldn’t ask for any more.”
And you couldn’t ask for a greater compliment from Belichick, who demands more from his players than maybe any other coach in any sport in any era. Ebner was a part of three Super Bowl championships for Belichick, who has eight rings as a head coach or assistant.
Ebner is humble and goes about his work quietly. But it’s nothing new that those around him consider him one of the finest athletes — and people — they know.
A world-class rugby player, Ebner participated in the 2016 Olympic Games, becoming only the seventh player in NFL history to participate in an Olympics and also win a pro football title. He was a walk-on at Ohio State in 2009 and eventually earned a scholarship. After the 2011 season, he was voted the Buckeyes’ best special teams player and won the Bo Rein Award as the team’s most inspirational player.
Yes, it’s just a one-year deal for a 31-year-old special-teamer. And yes, the Giants’ other acquisitions, including cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez, will play a greater role on defense.
But make no mistake, Ebner’s presence — on and off the field — will make a huge impact, one that can’t be quantified by tackles or sacks yet will resonate nonetheless.