Monday, March 20, 2023

Nate Ebner: The best Buckeye value from 6th round of the modern NFL Draft


These Scarlet and Gray legends produced the highest ROI relative to when they were selected in the NFL Draft.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Since 1936, the first year in which an official pro football draft took place, 481 Ohio State Buckeyes have been selected in the NFL Draft. Two players – Russ Thomas and Bob Meyers – were actually drafted into the NFL twice, in back-to-back (but separate) years. And 14 of those 481 former Buckeyes were also taken in the AFL Draft, including the legendary Hall of Fame wideout Paul Warfield. That makes 497 total draft picks for OSU since Gomer Jones was selected by the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals nearly a century ago.

Of the nearly 500 Buckeyes taken, hundreds have enjoyed successful pro careers, while others flamed out and/or never playing a snap after their time in Columbus. The Ohio State football program has produced NFL Hall of Famers, Pro Bowlers, Players and Rookies of the Year, ten-year tackling dummies, one-and-doners, monumental busts, and everything in between.

All of these former OSU football players share one thing in common, which is their affiliation with THE greatest university on the planet. Conversely, one thing that sets them all apart is their varying degrees of success (or lack thereof) in the NFL.

Another way to look at it is in terms of value. Each of these players produced value – positive or negative – for the team which drafted them. And that is what I am going to look at in the weeks leading up to the 2023 NFL Draft. I am going to attempt to identify the seven best Scarlet and Gray values, picking only one player from each round (length of the modern draft, and going in reverse order).

Before we get started, “best” and “most” must be sorted out. Best value is not the same as most valuable. And most valuable is not same as best value. Warfield, Eddie George, Orlando Pace, Jack Tatum, or Jim Parker would inarguably be among the most valuable (former) Buckeyes at the professional level. All became team captains, Pro Bowlers, eventual Hall of Famers, you name it. But they were also taken within the first 20 picks of their respective drafts, whereas Dick LeBeau made the NFL Hall of Fame as a fifth-rounder.

I might argue that LeBeau was the better overall value because of where/when he was drafted. But going round by round means I do not have to choose between Pace or LeBeau, which is a good thing because there are already plenty of difficult decisions ahead... Without further ado, let’s go bargain shopping.

Round 6: Nate Ebner, Safety

Ebner, a world-class rugby player, joined the Ohio State football team as a walk-on safety in 2009. While obviously familiar with the game, he never even played football for his high school team. And he was a third-year college student by the time he walked on in Columbus! Out of practice and out of his natural element, Ebner’s physicality and aggressiveness earned him an unlikely spot on the roster.

But in three seasons as a Buckeye, he made little if any impact at his DB position. Instead, Ebner made his mark on special teams. Blessed with good speed (4.5 in the 40), he sprinted down the field with reckless abandon on kick coverage. He was known for his win-at-all-costs mentality and willingness to sacrifice his body. Because of his mental makeup and toughness, he quickly garnered respect as a leader on the gridiron. He also earned the nickname “Leonidas” for his resemblance to actor Gerard Butler in the movie 300.

By the end of 2009, Ebner was already considered one of OSU’s best special teams players. And if you remember anything about those Jim Tressel-coached Buckeyes, you remember the emphasis placed on special teams. So to be mentioned as one of the best players on that unit was a real honor, and speaks volumes about how he was viewed by coaches and teammates.

The rugby-playing walk-on more than earned his spot on the roster during the next few seasons. He accumulated 30 special teams tackles during his Ohio State career, but made a larger impact than the stats would tell you. By 2011, Ebner was on scholarship and voted the team’s most inspirational player, as well as its best special teamer.

He also excelled in the classroom, earning All-Academic Big Ten each season he played for OSU. Ebner epitomized what it meant (and means) to be a Buckeye, and was revered by those in the program. His reputation and pro day performance would go on to earn him an unlikely opportunity in the NFL.

As most players do – even if they are not believed to be a highly-coveted draft prospect – Ebner participated in Ohio State’s pro day held after the 2011 season. Despite his limited role, NFL teams and personnel took notice. He ran a 4.47 40-yard dash, had a 39.5 inch vertical jump, and benched 225 pounds 23 times. At 6-feet and just over 200 pounds, he was viewed as a special athlete. Against all odds, the New England Patriots selected Ebner with pick No. 197 in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft.

And wouldn’t you know, he contributed right away as a rookie, finishing second on the Pats in special teams tackles and playing close to forty snaps as a safety. Ebner became a roster mainstay in short order and enjoyed plenty of success over the next eight seasons as a core special teamer with virtually no “traditional” positional value.

Ebner won three Super Bowls with New England, was named Second-Team All Pro in 2016, and received unusually high praise from Bill Belichick. The legendary coach once said of the former Buckeye:

“His development has really been outstanding. 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.”

The Pats never won fewer than 11 regular season games with Ebner on their roster, although Tom Brady’s presence also played a role in the team’s unprecedented success. But Ebner was a key contributor. Furthermore, he was revered by coaches and teammates and provided leadership and attitude not easily found elsewhere.

Ebner spent years 9 and 10 of his NFL career with the New York Giants, for whom he last suited up in 2021... A decade in the league for a rugby-playing safety, taken in the sixth round of the draft, with one career pass breakup. Pretty unique. And pretty damn impressive.

Ebner only totaled 105 tackles, but played in 133 games during his NFL career — which again, lasted 10 seasons. He received an All-Pro nod in 2016 and legitimately contributed to three Super Bowl-winning teams in New England. While his traditional stats do not jump off the page, there is absolutely no question that Ebner provided tremendous value as a sixth-round draft pick.

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