Easley’s career stats of 72 tackles and five-and-a-half sacks don’t exactly jump off the page. But that only tells part of the story of how Easley could be remembered as one of the best players to come out of this year’s class.
In 2011, Easley suffered a torn ACL in the Gators’ regular-season finale against Florida State. He rehabbed well and had an excellent junior season before tearing his other ACL in practice after just three games in 2013, freakishly on the exact same spot on the field of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as his previous tear.
Multiple ACL injuries would knock any prospect down draft boards, but as Easley gets healthier, scouts and draft analysts like Bleacher Report’s Ryan Riddle are beginning to take notice:
If he can stay healthy Dominique Easley will be one of the best players to emerge from the 2014 draft class. #VaultMe— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) May 5, 2014
Easley moved well at his impressive pro day and has worked himself back into at least the mid-rounds, unless some team is willing to take the risk and select Easley in the late first round.
Whoever takes Easley will be getting the best value of the draft, as he is a top-10 talent with the potential to be a dominant pass-rusher at the next level. As ESPN’s Chris Sprow pointed out during Florida’s game against Miami last year, Easley was just about unstoppable when he was on the field:
Dominique Easley has to be held to be blocked. Sheds and clears inside, bull rushes the edge. Only slowed when he's tired. #gators— Chris Sprow (@SprowESPN) September 7, 2013
The most impressive skill Easley possess is how quickly he explodes off the line of scrimmage. While Easley is not particularly big for his position, he has great strength and versatility, and he is skilled at shedding blocks.
That explosiveness allows Easley to fire his gaps quickly and easily split double-teams. Even the strongest offensive lines in the SEC had trouble keeping up with Easley’s first three steps, and he caused constant havoc in opposing backfields.
Aaron Donald will likely be the first defensive tackle taken off the board on Thursday due to his superior quickness at the line of scrimmage. But Easley deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, and he might even be more explosive than Donald when healthy.
Interior pass-rushers are highly valued in today’s NFL, and Easley is exactly the type of disruptive force that teams are looking for. Opponents have to specifically plan around players like Easley. Even when he didn’t accumulate flashy stats, Easley had some impact on just about every play, as shown by the highlights of his final collegiate game against Tennessee.
The biggest knock against Easley is that he is at a kind of in-between size at 6'2" 288 pounds. Bulking up even just 10 to 15 pounds could make a big difference against NFL competition. But as Easley told Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, his rehab time has allowed him to work on his body:
I was knock-kneed and flat-footed (before) so a lot of my body parts weren’t strong. After my first ACL (tear) my left knee was stronger than my right knee. (After this), I was able to break down and rebuild my whole body.
Plus, Easley isn’t locked into playing defensive tackle, as he lined up in multiple positions during his time at Florida. He could fit in as a 3-technique tackle, but NFL coaches also have to be intrigued about plugging Easley in as a speedy rusher in a 3-4.
NFL teams must now think about if Easley is worth a first-round pick despite the injury history. As ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan points out, Easley might be more of a long-term project player who won’t be making his best contributions right away:
The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are great first-round fits for Easley, as they both are looking for defensive line depth but don’t have an immediate need. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots also love the type of versatility Easley brings to the defensive line and could be interested at No. 29.
Any of those teams would get a great talent for the end of the first round, but Easley is always going to have the durability questions hanging over him. His motor and love for the game are not in question, and Easley already successfully returned from one ACL injury. Florida head coach Will Muschamp is confident Easley will recover, via Nick De La Torre of Gatorcountry.com:
One of the questions they ask in the NFL is do they like football, how important is football to them? When you talking about a 16-week season, it better be important to you, it's a long, long year. That's the one thing with Dominque, football is important for him. ... Five months out of surgery, I thought he looked outstanding. It doesn’t shock me from the standpoint of his work ethic and what he’s going to do to get himself ready.
Easley carries a huge risk, but the reward is well worth it. If he can stay healthy, Easley will make teams pay for overlooking him and be right up with Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack as one of the best defensive players of the 2014 draft.