Few knew of Nate Ebner before the Patriots selected him in the sixth round of the draft last year, but he quickly grew a following because of his unlikely path to the NFL. Earlier today, colleague Mike Rodak highlighted Ebner in the latest installment of his "Bubble Watch" series, noting the potential for Ebner to gain more experience on defense this season.
Ebner, who was unable to fully participate in offseason activities due to an unknown injury, played in 15 games as a rookie and contributed primarily on special teams. Safety was a position of flux for the Patriots, but Devin McCourty eventually settled in next to Steve Gregory to solidify the back end of the defense.
It's a distant memory now, but Ebner, who played just three defensive snaps during his final year at Ohio State, flashed ball skills and range during training camp last July and August. He made a handful of plays on the ball, showing reactive athleticism to move laterally on reads, and seemed to grow more comfortable as training camp rolled on.
By the time the season began, Ebner was largely relegated to a special teams role, as he played just 34 defensive snaps last regular season. But while we have a sense of what Ebner is on special teams -- a core special teamer who can help as both a coverage and hold-up player -- what makes him intriguing is what he could become defensively.
If he can develop enough to be a contributor in sub packages, that will enhance Ebner's value and help him stick around for a long time in New England. If he turns out to be best suited as strictly a special teamer, he'll continue to draw a parallel to Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater, who nominally is a wide receiver, but has just one reception in five pro seasons. He's also become a captain and leader for the team, paying credence to the fact that each NFL roster needs core special teamers who can impact the outcome of the game each week. If Ebner evolves into another Slater-like prospect that doesn't have a large defensive role, that's still very good return on an initial investment of just a sixth-round pick.