After years of growing pains, the New England Patriots appear to finally have a defense capable of becoming one of the league's elite units. With foundational players at all levels, the core of the Pats defense is already comfortably in place for 2014.
However, that does not mean the defense does not have a few needs. One long-standing deficiency has been the lack of an interior pass rush. Since 2010, no New England defensive tackle has compiled more than 3.5 sacks in a single season, per Pro-Football-Reference, highlighting the lack of options beyond edge-rushers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
One player who could flip that weakness into a strength is Florida's Dominique Easley. A prototypical penetrating 3-technique, Easley is a top-15 talent whose injury history has him pegged as a late second- or early third-round pick in the NFL draft.
In advocating for Troy Niklas and Ryan Shazier previously, I've pinpointed prospects who fill multiple needs. Easley is more of a one-trick pony; and yet, his rare skill set represents one of the most important assets in today's spread-oriented NFL, making him a high-upside player worthy of an early-round gamble.
Continuing the draft countdown series, let's dissect why Easley could be worthy of a second-round investment from the Patriots.
What Does Easley Bring?
Easley is not exactly a sleeper anymore, even in spite of his deflated stock. The Patriots are one of numerous teams on Easley's predraft visit tour:
It's not hard to understand the widespread curiosity. Easley possesses all the tools to become one of the NFL's top pass-rushing defensive tackles. It all starts with his explosive "get-off," or ability to anticipate the snap and beat the offensive lineman.
It might seem strange that Easley, who has torn both of his ACLs, would be considered one of the class' most explosive players. And yet, it's abundantly clear when watching his film that typically lead-footed interior offensive linemen have little chance in preventing Easley from knifing through gaps and blowing up plays in the backfield:
Easley is not solely a 3-technique either. Florida would also line him out wide in a 6- or 7-technique, often as part of a stunt inside. The Pats have run these rush concepts with Chandler Jones, a similarly fluid athlete who can exploit slow-reacting offensive linemen:
Though line play is often difficult to scout and understand, it all essentially comes down to leverage. Each player is attempting to get his hands inside the shoulders of his opponent, which stacks the lineman and allows one to shed the block or bull-rush into the backfield.
Thus, aggressive and quick hand usage is absolutely essential to success. Easley excels in this facet of line play, one of the many positive byproducts of his explosion off the snap.
Watch those pass-rush cut-ups above, or any of Easley's draft breakdown tapes. He consistently demonstrates a strong punch and gets under his opponents' pads. Easley does not possess particularly long arms compared to other physically freakish defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman, but such consistent penetration is a game changer even without gaudy sack totals. For example, Easley's batted pass here resulted in an easy interception:
However, the most endearing facet of Easley's game might be his motor. When one has faced as much injury adversity as Easley, love of the game is an indispensably vital component to remaining a viable prospect. Intangibles are usually a bonus in early-round prospects, but for Easley, it actually appears to manifest itself in his play.
Indeed, Easley's pursuit is absolutely relentless, perhaps even more impressive than his natural pass-rushing ability. It helps that he is gifted with tremendous movement ability, which not only opens up the defensive playbook, but causes positive results for others on broken plays. This sack against Toledo resulted when Easley's initial push forced the quarterback to step up into a collapsed pocket:
In short, while Easley is the perfect pass-rushing 3-technique, his versatility actually allows him to line up all over the line. If selected, there are a few different ways he could spice up a Patriots defensive line rotation that currently looks fairly stagnant.
How Could Patriots Use Easley?
It is undeniably clear the Patriots need another pass-rusher. New England is extremely fortunate to have a pair of durable three-down defensive ends in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Still, there were times where Jones and/or Ninkovich were clearly worn down from heavy usage. In those instances, the Pats' pass-rush totally dissipated.
To combat the problem, most seem to point to edge-rushers. Prospects like Kony Ealy and Dee Ford have sexier sack totals, and the Pats have been linked to ex-Saints defensive end Will Smith. However, as MassLive.com's Nick O'Malley suggests, an interior rusher like Easley would provide the Patriots a dimension they have not enjoyed in years:
Easley would another dimension to the New England pass rush, giving them someone who can collapse the pocket from the inside, something that Patriots fans have seen the Muhammad Wilkersons, J.J. Watts and Jurrell Casey's of the league (10.5 sacks each last year) do for other teams so well. If the Patriots defense is going to actually make a jump, they need a guy like Easley.
In identifying a possible fit for Easley within the Patriots' system, one need look no further than Chris Jones. Jones played significant snaps his rookie season due to the defensive tackle attrition. At 6'1" and 309 pounds, Jones does not possess tremendous size, but his quickness and disruptive pass-rushing ability brought back memories of ex-Patriot Mike Wright.
New England typically lined Jones up at the 3-technique in its base 4-3 package. The Patriots also played plenty of three-man lines last year, either as part of a 3-4 or sub-package personnel. In those instances, Jones typically lined up as a 5-technique, shaded over the offensive tackle:
The Pats' total lack of tackle depth forced them to utilize Jones much more often than they would have preferred. Nonetheless, before wearing down the second half of the year, Jones compiled five sacks his first five games. As his snap-count totals indicate, Jones usually played a much more prominent role on passing downs, especially in games where he had declined usage:
|Chris Jones 2013 Snap Breakdown|
|Week||Run Snaps||Pass-Rush Snaps||% Total Snaps Played|
|via Pro Football Focus|
Easley has demonstrated the versatility to line up anywhere along the defensive line. Even in 3-4 fronts, the Patriots rarely employed straight traditional two-gapping principles, especially after Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went on injured reserve. Easley should still end up playing to his one-gapping strengths if he ends up in Foxboro.
Moreover, Easley is not far from defensive end size by NFL standards, opening up the possibility of using him in wider 6- and 7-technique alignments. In fact, Easley occasionally even lined up as a wide-9 at Florida, an alignment that places him well outside the tackle and gives significant downhill leverage:
NFL tackles are bigger and longer than what Easley saw in college, so wide alignments are not likely to be his primary role in the league. But it's encouraging that Easley's hand usage allowed him to shed all types of linemen, as NFL guards are usually at least as athletic as the tackles Easley faced in college.
Unfortunately, you don't have to look too far to see the red flags with Easley. As alluded to above, Easley has torn both ACLs, with the most recent injury coming on a non-contract drill in practice this past season. SportsonEarth.com's Mike Tanier perfectly encapsulates the risk between Easley's upside, comparing him to Hall of Famer John Randle at one point, and the very real alternative possibility of a career spent in the training room:
Among defenders in this year's draft, only Jadeveon Clowney has as much upside as Easley. But Easley is a bigger risk than Clowney. Clowney might not be motivated enough to achieve his full potential. Easley may spend his entire career in Dr. James Andrews' waiting room.
Easley would be getting Ndamukong Suh-caliber attention right now if not two ACL tears, one on each knee, during his college career. Instead of earning mention among the top five picks, Easley is the draft's painful secret: the potential superstar teams will be wary to take too great a risk on.
In terms of on-field issues, there's a reason for all the praise and clips above related to Easley's backfield penetration ability. Unlike other top defensive tackle prospects like Louis Nix and Ra'Shede Hageman, Easley will never be mistaken for a Wilforkian two-gapping nose tackle. On this play, Easley actually almost made the tackle, but only the run happened to flow in his direction after he got stood up at the line:
Indeed, Easley (6'2" and 288 lbs) is on the lighter side, though for a one-gapping defensive tackle, his size is adequate. Nevertheless, Easley is not big enough to anchor the line if the opposition gets his hands inside him, especially when double-teamed. It's a good thing Easley's get-off is lightning quick, otherwise this would be a deal breaker that would likely force a conversion to defensive end.
In addition, Easley possesses worse vision than expected. This is not always entirely his fault; in fact, it's often by design that his job is to simply burst upfield as quickly as possible. However, that does not mean Easley should operate with tunnel vision. On play-action or misdirection runs, he occasionally loses sight of the play due to shaky play identification and awareness:
There are also some questions about Easley's subpar production. Even after he burst onto the scene in 2012, Easley compiled just four sacks over 20 games from 2012-13. Of course, that does not account for the myriad pressures and hits he compiled, but it's a bit troubling he did not get home more often.
Even with those concerns, Easley should be an impact player if he stays healthy. That "if" is a huge caveat, of course, and a second-round pick is certainly no small investment.
However, the Pats do seem likely to invest in a defensive tackle at some point. With over-30 starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly returning from major injuries, neither is a lock to contribute reliably in 2014. Even if both rebound, the Patriots figure to limit both veterans to between 50 to 60 percent of the snaps to ensure their health and freshness.
And while this sentiment might not be popular to Pats followers, the options behind Wilfork and Kelly do not appear particularly promising either. Armond Armstead has yet to play a down in the NFL, and his health is still a significant concern after a mysterious infection cost him all of 2013. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano were overmatched in full-time roles and figure to provide replacement-level depth at best.
Consequently, there exists a need for a long-term solution at the position, even though Wilfork's return has lessened the urgency a bit. Easley is an entirely different animal than Wilfork, but he would fit New England's recent trend of selecting smaller front-seven players with top-notch movement skills (Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, etc.).
Easley is no slam dunk to make meaningful contributions. For every injury concern who turns out like Rob Gronkowski, there are multiple Terrence Wheatley types who fail to pan out. If Easley is still available at pick 62, New England will have to decide if his upside represents too much value to pass up.