Dominique Easley didn't make things easy for Teddy Bridgewater and the Louisville Cardinals in last year's Sugar Bowl.
Sharrif Floyd quickly shot up draft boards to become one of the hottest defensive line prospects in the 2013 NFL draft. Another Florida defensive lineman, Dominique Easley, could be in line for a similar rise in 2014.
Throughout the months of June and July, I am looking ahead to the 2014 draft here at Bleacher Report and breaking down 10 of the top defensive linemen in the upcoming draft class.
This week's installment focuses on Easley, an explosive and versatile defensive lineman who projects as a potential impact player in any NFL defensive scheme. While Floyd stole the spotlight on the Gators defensive line last season, Easley could be viewed by some NFL teams as a better prospect for the 2014 draft than Floyd in 2013.
Last season's Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville wasn't a night to remember for Florida as a whole, but it was for Easley. In the national spotlight, he played arguably the best game of his career. He dominated the Louisville offensive line with quickness and power and finished the game with 3.5 tackles for loss, while also deflecting a pass that was intercepted by a teammate.
Going through the tape of Sugar Bowl, might have been best game ever for #Gators DL Dominique Easley. Consistently blew up run plays.— Thomas Goldkamp (@Goldkamp247) January 5, 2013
The Minnesota Vikings selected Floyd with the No. 23 overall selection in the 2013 draft. If Easley finishes his Florida career strong in his senior season, he could follow in Floyd's footsteps as a first-round pick in 2014.
Explosive At the Line of Scrimmage
The strength of Easley's game is his ability to explode off the line of scrimmage and make plays at or behind the line.
With a strong combination of quickness and power, Easley doesn't have much trouble generating explosion and momentum into his opponent.
He has a good first step off the line and accelerates quickly. He is very good at anticipating snap counts and timing his jump off the snap, although he needs to cut down on his tendency of jumping too quickly and drawing offsides penalties.
He can beat offensive linemen with his quickness alone, but he combines that quickness with the power and strength to push through offensive linemen or drive them back.
Easley can get into an offensive lineman's pads quickly to catch his opponent off-guard. After initiating contact, he can quickly shift to a power game and combine his strength and athleticism to generate momentum and drive his opponent back.
In the following video example, courtesy of Draft Breakdown, Easley gets a good jump at the line of scrimmage and decides to bull rush straight into the center. From there, he quickly generates the power to drive the center back into the quarterback for a sack.
Easley often draws double-team blocks from opposing offensive lines in efforts to neutralize his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage. He has shown that he can work through those as well, as he did for one of his tackles for loss in last year's Sugar Bowl versus Louisville.
Easley is very good at getting into the backfield to make plays, and can do so from both inside and off the edge.
Easley is a quick-footed defensive lineman who moves fluidly across the field. He is a nimble athlete who displays the ability to move laterally with agility and change directions with his hips.
Easley can also make plays with his speed in pursuit. When he gets free as a rusher, he has enough speed to track down the ball with a proper angle. He also displays the ability to track down a run that goes to the opposite side of the line by chasing the ball-carrier upfield and making a play from behind.
Easley is far from being a speed rusher, but if he has an angle to the quarterback, he can close quickly. An example of that came last year versus Louisiana-Lafayette, when Easley buried quarterback Terrence Broadway for a deep sack.
Easley has the strength to hold up against blockers both inside and out. He generates power effectively but also holds his ground well at the point of attack.
As a result, Easley has the versatility to line up in multiple spots on a defensive line. Playing primarily in a four-man front at Florida, Easley has experience lining up inside as both a nose tackle over the center and as a 3-technique between the guard and tackle. He has also played on the edge at defensive end.
The following pictures show a three-play sequence versus Louisiana-Lafayette in which Easley lined up first as a defensive end on the edge, then as a 1-technique nose tackle and finally in the 3-technique spot.
Size will be one of the biggest knocks on Easley in pre-draft evaluations. Listed at 6'2" and 280 pounds by Florida's official website, Easley will have trouble escaping the dreaded "'tweener" label.
Easley is undersized for a defensive tackle, but lacks the length and speed desired in a defensive end.
If Easley can bulk up and add 15-20 pounds to his frame, he is likely to receive more attention as a defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end. That said, Easley must be able to maintain his explosiveness while adding weight to remain an impact player and difference-maker on the defensive line.
Stuffing the Run
While Easley projects to have a size disadvantage against NFL interior linemen, he has shown to be a very good run-stopper at the collegiate level. He is best-known for his ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage, but is also very good at maintaining gap control and clogging run lanes.
By holding his ground and driving his opponent back with power, he can quickly shut down a run lane. He is effective with bull-rushing his opponent back up the middle of the offensive line to force a runner to pop outside and find a new lane.
Easley is strong with plugging a gap and holding his ground. He can effectively occupy a double-team and maintain his space to not only close a gap but also take multiple blockers out of a play.
The concern with Easley will lie in whether the interior run-stopping ability he has displayed in college will translate against stronger, faster opponents at the next level.
One area where Easley does struggle is allowing his opponents to initiate contact and get into his pads. Easley lacks the counter moves to consistently disengage from blocks and, as a result, he can get driven back or turned out of a play by his opponent.
Rushing the Passer
Easley's explosiveness gives him potential as an inside pass-rusher, but his game as a rusher remains very much a work in progress.
As demonstrated above with his sack versus Auburn, Easley is most effective as a bull rusher. With his quickness off the snap and ability to generate power, he can drive his opponent back quickly and put heat on the quarterback.
Easley has the athleticism to chase down a quarterback when he gets free, but breaking free from his opponent can be troublesome. In order to be an effective three-down player at the next level, Easley must become better at beating blockers with his hands.
Most of Easley's sacks at Florida have come as a result of winning on speed thanks to a breakdown in protection. He does not have a strong array of pass-rushing moves, which he needs to develop to consistently beat blockers at the next level.
When Easley does not win his initial start off the line, he struggles to disengage from pass protection. While he still makes some big plays as an inside rusher by jumping a snap and exploding out of his stance, his pass-rushing efforts are neutralized too often.
Projecting Easley's Fit and Draft Stock
Easley's ability to play various spots on the defensive line makes him a very intriguing prospect for both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.
If he can bulk up while maintaining his quickness, he has incredible upside as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 or as a 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4. His ability penetrating inside makes him a good fit to play either position, especially if he can become a more complete pass-rusher.
He brings more versatility to a four-man front, as he could play defensive end situationally against the run with his strength and ability to maintain gap control. He is likely limited to playing end in a 3-4, as he lacks the size to play nose tackle and the all-around athleticism to drop to outside linebacker.
While Easley will be stacked up against Sharrif Floyd given their time as teammates at Florida, he is a more comparable prospect to Sheldon Richardson. While the 2013 NFL Draft's No. 13 overall pick has more pass-rushing skill, Easley is comparable in terms of size, explosiveness and schematic versatility.
Had Easley declared for the 2013 NFL Draft, he likely would have been a mid-to-late Day 2 selection. With a strong senior season, however, he could vault himself into the first round.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.