Patriots backup safety and special teams ace Nate Ebner signed a new, two-year deal with the team Saturday.
And he promptly took a leave of absence.
Ebner, who was a rugby player at Ohio State before switching to football, received the Patriots’ blessing to attempt to make the United States national rugby team this spring and summer. If it goes well, Ebner will play for the US in the Summer Olympics in Brazil.
Ebner, 27, will train with the national team in Chula Vista, Calif., for the next three weeks before heading overseas for tournaments in Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris, and London, according to his Boston-area agent, Sean Stellato.
It’s been dream of Ebner’s to return to rugby, a lifelong love.
“From my background obviously, rugby’s always been a part of my life since even I was 6 years old — I probably picked up a ball and started playing and watching my dad play so it’s always been a part of my life. I grew up with rugby like [how] most kids probably grew up with football, or basketball, or baseball,’’ he said during a Tuesday evening conference call.
“For me, it’s always been around. There’s a big part of rugby in my life, at a young age especially, with the USA and traveling for the Junior World Cups and things of that nature. As I transitioned to football you don’t forget about those things and that was a big part of my life.’’
Ebner has been given no guarantees about a spot on the national roster.
“I have to try out for the team like anybody else,’’ he said.
The US coaches will finalize the roster around July 15, and the Olympic rugby tournament will be held Aug. 6-11 in Rio de Janeiro.
The schedule means Ebner will miss the Patriots’ 10-week offseason program from April to June. Should Ebner make the Olympic team, he could miss the first 2½ weeks of Patriots training camp.
Stellato said Bill Belichick was more than willing to let Ebner pursue his dream, and the Patriots wrote on Twitter, “We are proud to support @Natebner34 in his effort to earn a place on the United States National Rugby team.”
“Coach gave the blessing, and we’re extremely grateful for him doing that,” Stellato said. “He’s proud to be a Patriot, and he’s excited to represent his country.”
We are proud to support @Natebner34 in his effort to earn a place on the United States National Rugby team.— New England Patriots (@Patriots) March 15, 2016
Ebner declined to get into specifics about his conversation when he approached Belichick with the idea.
“At the end of the day, I think Bill understands rugby is a passion of mine and that is where my background lies,” Ebner said. “I expressed my desire to chase the Olympic dream in a sport that I love and grew up playing. At the end of the day, I got my opportunity and I am looking forward to working really hard to make that come true.”
Ebner was a sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2012, and while he rarely plays on defense, he has played more than 1,200 special teams snaps the last four years, and was third on the team last year with 11 special teams tackles.
The Patriots used Ebner’s rugby skills last season, having him attempt a surprise rugby-style onside dropkick against the Eagles. But the Eagles recovered the kick in a game they eventually won, 35-28.
Ebner’s rise to the NFL was quite unusual. He did not play high school football while growing up in the Columbus, Ohio, area, but was an accomplished rugby player, learning the sport from his father, Jeff, who played it at the University of Minnesota.
At 17, Ebner was the youngest player to compete on the US national rugby sevens team, and was later named MVP for the US under-20 national team in 2007 and 2008.
Ebner played rugby for two years at Ohio State, then walked on to the football team as a junior. He was instantly the Buckeyes’ best special teams player, and after two seasons, he was drafted by the Patriots.
Stellato said Ebner’s pursuit of a spot with the Olympic team is also a chance to reconnect with his father, who was killed during an attempted robbery at the family business, Ebner & Sons auto reclamation, in November 2008.
“This means a lot to Nate,” Stellato said. “The connection he had with his dad — bringing him up as a rugby player, showing him how to play the game — and then losing him as a teenager, it’s a way for him to carry his spirit with him at all times and finish strong.”
Hogan’s contract numbers
Wide receiver Chris Hogan only has 87 catches for 959 yards and six touchdowns in four NFL seasons, but according to the terms of Hogan’s new, three-year contract, the Patriots believe he can make a big impact in their offense.
Hogan, 27, is guaranteed to be with the Patriots at least two years, and 62.5 percent of his deal is fully guaranteed. The relatively short length of Hogan’s contract allows him to hit free agency again when he is 30.
The total value of Hogan’s deal is $12 million, and $7.5 million is fully guaranteed, coming in the first two years of the deal. In 2016, he gets a $1 million base salary and $4 million roster bonus. In 2017, his $2.5 million base salary is fully guaranteed, and in 2018 his non-guaranteed base salary is $3 million. Hogan also can make up to $500,000 each year in per-game roster bonuses.
Hogan’s salary cap numbers are $5.5 million, $3 million, and $3.5 million. He takes the place of Brandon LaFell in the offense, who was set to have a cap number of $3.675 million before the Patriots released him.
The Patriots are now in an interesting situation at wide receiver, where their salary cap situation in 2016 is an inverse of the depth chart. The cap numbers:
Danny Amendola: $6.8 million
Hogan: $5.5 million
Julian Edelman: $4.4 million
This puts the Patriots in a situation where they may ask Amendola to take a pay cut for the second consecutive year — he is currently due $5 million in salary — or re-do Edelman’s contract to reflect the fact that he is the team’s top receiver.
The Patriots currently have about $12 million in cap space after signing Hogan and defensive tackle Frank Kearse, who got a one-year deal worth a maximum of $825,000. Kearse got a veteran minimum salary of $760,000 (split down to $428,000 if he spends the season on injured reserve), a $30,000 signing bonus, a $30,000 reporting bonus, and a $5,000 roster bonus, but he is not guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster this fall.
The $12 million in cap space does not account for backup safety Nate Ebner, who signed a 2-year deal with the Patriots last weekend.