Maybe former New England Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest knew something no one else knew. He seemed to foreshadow the Patriots' eventual first-round pick when he spoke to the media at Gillette Stadium before the NFL draft on Thursday.
"Our issue is if you've got Chandler Jones going, if you got [Rob] Ninkovich going, you're going to probably need somebody inside too as well, to press the pocket and cause havoc inside," McGinest said. "We've seen what the one-man show with the Texans can do, J.J. Watt. Just think if he had somebody on the outside on a consistent basis with him, causing havoc."
Vince Wilfork has been a one-man wrecking crew in the middle of New England's defensive line for years, but there has always been a void next to him where the Patriots could use a disruptive presence that could create pressure up the middle. Before Thursday, they had a void behind him on the depth chart, as well, with relative uncertainty about the long-term viability of Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga in bigger roles.
Now, the Patriots have addressed that uncertainty with the selection of Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley. At least, that's what they hope. It all depends on whether Easley's dual reconstructed ligaments can hold up. He had surgery to repair the ACL in both knees while at Florida, raising red flags about his ability to stay healthy.
He is a far cry from the prototypical Patriots defensive tackle. In the past, head coach Bill Belichick has run a two-gap scheme that has called for its defensive tackles to soak up multiple blockers while holding the responsibility of the gaps on either side of the offensive lineman blocking them. The 6'2", 288-pound Easley is best known for his elite burst off the snap, ability to penetrate through gaps and get into the backfield to create pressure.
This philosophical shift has been a long time coming. The Patriots surprisingly moved on from defensive tackles Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love last offseason, signaling the beginning of those changes. This seems to be the next move that turns it into a seismic shift.
It's hard to put a finger on Easley's game. Bleacher Report NFL draft expert Matt Miller compared him to Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy for his burst and agility. CBS Sports' Rob Rang compared him to Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett for similar reasons.
Perhaps he is best described as "disruptive," a word Belichick used continually when talking about Easley to reporters. What traits, exactly, did Belichick see that made him think Easley would be a fit for the defense?
"Pretty much all of them," Belichick said. "He does a lot of things well. He's a smart guy, he's very instinctive, he's got a great motor, works hard, football's important to him. There's not much to not like about him."
These days, the Patriots are searching for a different brand of defensive tackle.
Easley has all the tools to be exactly what the Patriots have been missing. He also has the one trait that could threaten it all for his proneness to injury.
Between Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and now Dominique Easley, the Patriots have a lengthy list of key players with injury concerns. Now, that list of players with injury concerns envelopes the top three spots on the depth chart at defensive tackle.
Fortunately for Easley, the Patriots probably won't put the entire load on him as a rookie. He will be part of the rotation with Wilfork and Kelly in order to keep the burden off them as they return from injury and in order to help Easley as he takes his first steps in the NFL.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases. Combine measurements and workout numbers provided by NFL.com.
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