Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Belichick: Ebner one of most improved all-time

By Phil Perry

September 16, 2014

Since training camp, Nate Ebner has slowly worked his way into the mix as a member of the Patriots defense. A core special-teamer since his rookie season in 2012, the safety out of Ohio State -- who hardly played at all as a defender in college -- has earned more trust from the Patriots coaching staff and found himself on the field for 13 defensive snaps in a win over the Vikings in Week 2.

Per Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, Ebner played just five defensive snaps all of last season.

"We certainly have a lot of confidence in Nate," Bill Belichick said in a conference call Tuesday. "We’ve seen Nate grow and improve. I would probably put him in the -- not the all-time top, but maybe in the top five percent all-time of players that I’ve coached from where they were in college to how they grew in the NFL.

"Nate had almost no defensive experience at Ohio State. He’s adapted in a relatively short amount of time -- going into his third year so it’s really two-plus years -- adapted very well to the knowledge of our defense, to the understanding of opponents’ offenses, to instinctiveness and reading and recognition at a position that he plays right in the middle of the field, which is among the most difficult -- inside linebacker and safety -- where the volume and the number of things that can happen are the greatest, where you have to really see everybody on the field, all 11 guys. His development has really been outstanding.

"I think [safeties] coach [Brian] Flores has done an excellent job training him. I think Nate has worked very hard and the play time that he’s earned defensively has come through his hard work and performance and consistency. It’s really been good."

Ebner has played a sort of hybrid linebacker-safety role that has also been occupied by Tavon Wilson at points this season. It's one of the handful of jobs in the Patriots secondary where there's been a good deal of movement and various players attempting to carve their own roles.

"We have, I think, a number of good players at that position," Belichick said. "There’s a lot of competition there and there’s not an unlimited number of opportunities for all those guys, but we have a lot of confidence in that position. They all played solid roles for us last week, defensively as well as in the kicking game. I think we’re very fortunate to have the quality of players that we have at that position.

"Nate has, I’d say, far exceeded our expectations defensively based on what he had coming out of college. Players like Steve Neal, with zero experience, [Matt] Cassel, very little playing experience at Southern Cal, guys like that, Nate, very little defensive experience at Ohio State, for those guys to become the type of players that . . . I’m not putting [Ebner] in that class yet, but I’m saying the evolution and development for guys like that is pretty significant relative to a lot of other players who have just had a lot more opportunity than guys like that have."

Early in the year, especially before teams make their final training-camp cuts and establish a 53-man roster, there is a significant value placed on special teams. If there is a position battle where one player has special teams ability and the other doesn't, that can help make a decision as to whether or not a player gets a spot on the team.

Back before the Patriots made their final cuts this year, Belichick explained that while it's necessary for offensive and defensive players to have special teams ability, it's also vital that some elite special teamers -- guys like Ebner and Matthew Slater -- have the ability to chip in on offense or defense.

"If a guy’s major role on the team is the kicking game, then any role that he can handle on offense or defense just helps your team, gives that player more value and gives your team more depth," Belichick said in late August. "It’s the reverse of the offensive and defensive players who have significant roles, but can give you a role in the kicking game, that can do something in the kicking game that can help the team. Those are valuable on special teams as well, to have somebody step in and do something for you there when they also have a big role on offense and defense. That just gives your team more depth.

"And particularly for special teams players, and we’ve seen so many examples of it through the years: guys that start off on the kicking team end up developing into good offensive or defensive players, and the offensive and defensive coaches are able to start using those players in roles and expanding their roles because they know that those guys are going to be there every week."

As Belichick pointed out, part of the reason Ebner has been able to expand his duties on defense is that he's on the 46-man game-day roster every week due to his special teams value.

For example, someone like Kenbrell Thompkins has the ability to contribute on offense, but because he does not play on special teams, he was inactive in Week 2. Instead, receiver Brandon LaFell was active thanks in part to the fact that he plays in the kicking game.

"Really the guy that kind of is a tough fit on the roster on game day is the player who has a role on offense or defense -- not a major role but a role -- but has a small role in the kicking game or maybe in some cases doesn’t have a role in the kicking game," Belichick said. "If it’s not a big enough role offensively or defensively, whatever the case might be, then it’s hard to get that player to the game if he doesn’t have a role in the kicking game. You end up usually, often times going with a player who has a big role in the kicking game and maybe not so much of a role on offense and defense, just because that role in the kicking game is bigger.

"It’s interesting how it works out. In my experience, I’d say that guys who are good in the kicking game actually have the chance to get a bigger role on offense and defense than some players who might be ahead of them on offense and defense but don’t play in the kicking game, because the coaches just can’t count on them being there on game day."

And when it comes to Ebner, Belichick believes he's made the most of his chances.

"He’s a good example," Belichick said, "of the player that I was talking about whose role expands on defense because of his role in the kicking game."

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