The New England Patriots were not expected to make a flashy move in the first round. With quarterbacks sliding down the board, they seemed like prime candidates to trade out and add to their Day 2 cargo.
However, the Patriots, who are typically conservative in their first-round selections, broke character in selecting Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Leading up to the draft, I wrote about Easley as a possibility for the Patriots, so check out the piece for a more detailed film breakdown.
Now that Easley is actually Foxboro-bound (perhaps a bit earlier than anticipated), let's dissect what his selection means for the Patriots.
The Patriots may have very well selected a top-10 talent in the latter stages of the first round. As SI.com's Doug Farrar stated before the draft, Easley's raw talent is on par with that of the first overall pick:
Put simply, a totally healthy Dominique Easley would be a lock for a top-five pick in the 2014 draft, and in my opinion, people would be talking about him as they talk about Jadeveon Clowney — he’s that good on tape. Outside of his size limitations, he’s got everything you could possibly want in a defensive lineman, and the ways in which he’s dealt with his setbacks say as much about him as a person than as a player.
In the wake of the selection, Ian Rapoport reported that Easley's entrance into the first round was not really a surprise:
Indeed, Easley may finally solve the Patriots' perpetual interior rush woes. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, Derrick Burgess' five-sack 2009 season is the high-water mark for Pats defensive tackles in the last five years. As some Pats fans may recall, Richard Seymour was traded to Oakland shortly before the start of that year.
Now, Easley (6'2", 288 lbs.) steps in and has the potential to become a game-changing 3-technique. He also frequently lined up in the 7- and even 9-tech at Gainesville, giving the Patriots' sub packages a huge boost in terms of pass-rushing talent and formational versatility.
New England's best packages in 2013 often entailed uber-athletic defensive end Chandler Jones lining up as an interior rusher. Jones' length and explosiveness created a natural mismatch with lead-footed interior linemen, a nice change-up that also allowed the Patriots to call more creative stunt blitzes.
Now, the Pats do not need to move Jones out of position and risk losing a valuable edge-setter. Easley should immediately step in and provide valuable pass-rushing depth outside of workhorses Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Many thought that help would come off the edge, but in Easley, the Patriots have diversified their front seven's method of attack.
As alluded to earlier, Easley is no sure bet to stay healthy. The Pats have whiffed on injury risks such as Terrance Wheatley in the past, typically in the second round. As a Day 1 selection, the stakes are even higher with Easley, even though the new CBA makes the financial commitment more tenable.
Easley tore his ACL during the third week of last season, though he was able to participate at his Florida pro day. The Patriots attended the workout and hosted Easley before the draft, per National Football Post's Aaron Wilson, and the player himself assuaged any immediate concerns about his knee:
Of course, that does not prevent the possibility of a recurrence, but there is simply no short-term analysis in that department. The Patriots have rolled the dice on Easley staying on the field, as he did for the majority of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and they must wait a few years to see if their faith is rewarded.
On the field, Easley is not the heir to Vince Wilfork that some may deem, simply because the two have the same position designation. In reality, the two are total opposites, for Easley will never be mistaken for a two-gapping space-eater like Wilfork. Easley is much more explosive and should consequently have a flashier stat sheet, but his impact will be vastly different.
Indeed, considering the Patriots' struggles in run defense following Wilfork's season-ending injury, Easley does little to address this need. Easley lacks ideal bulk, and with below-average arm length, he could be vulnerable to offensive linemen who can stack him and create a big gap in the middle of the defense.
In addition, Easley may not have been the best value. His injury concerns seemed likely to drop him to Day 2, though NEPD's Mike Loyko suggested that New England was enamored of Easley as a Day 1 certainty:
The Pats may have tried to trade down but failed to find a suitable trading partner. Considering the depth of the draft, it would have been nice to pick up a couple extra Day 2 picks.
The Patriots have never been afraid to buck public opinion, and Easley again fulfills that perception. New England's first-rounders have typically been high-floor prospects who project to play heavy snaps immediately.
Easley, who will be a primarily sub-package weapon, again signals New England's shift away from that philosophy. The Pats have long been reluctant to select passing-down specialists, a mindset that famously cost them Clay Matthews. But having played two-thirds of their snaps in the sub last year, a passing-down player is truly a starter now.
It's impossible to judge Easley immediately. More likely, this feels like a pick that will either turn into a tremendous steal or a colossal bust. If Easley is a hit, however, he's the type of game-changing defensive force the Patriots have not employed in a very long time.
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