Round: 1, Pick: 29 (Overall: 29) Dominique Easley, DL, Florida
Easley is the type of high-risk, high-reward pick common at the end of the first round of the NFL Draft. He could be an explosive interior rusher, but he tore both ACLs in college and that’s the big concern. Reviewing his college tape shows that when he was healthy and on the field, he had the ability to disrupt the passing game from both the interior and edge while at Florida.
Of course, the second ACL surgery is what caused his drop from top-ten to bottom of the first round. If he returns to health the Patriots have a late first round steal like they did a decade ago when they snagged defensive tackle Vince Wilfork in the 2004 NFL Draft. If he is unable to recover then this could be another Ras-I Dowling type of failed draft pick.
Easley first has to get on the field before there is any discussion of his role this season, and New England being controlled by Bill Belichick, there is little information leaking out about his health. On one hand, having been through the injury once on his other knee Easley could be on the fast track through rehabilitation. What needs to happen for Easley to contribute in 2014 is to first put the knee injury behind him and harness his skill set.
What stands out with Easley is his ability to explode into the backfield at the snap and disrupt both the running and passing game. Expect to see Easley initially on third down rushing from the interior of the defensive line. As he returns to health, learns the defense, and gains the coaching staff’s confidence, Easley will likely end up rushing the passer from every spot on the defensive line.
2015 and Beyond:
While Easley is projected to contribute on a regular basis by the end of the 2014 season, his role in the future is where he should emerge (if healthy) as a defensive building block. Not since linebacker/defensive end Willie McGinest keyed a ferocious pass rush a decade ago have the Patriots had a big play pass rusher. Like Denver with linebacker Von Miller, New England could have their game-changer on the defensive line in Easley.
As Easley grows in his role on defense his impact should grow proportionately. Expect Bill Belichick to eventually deploy Easley all over the field and force opposing offensive lines to identify where he is in-game and adapt their blocking scheme to slow him down. As he evolves on defense he should free up space for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins to make more plays.
Similar pick in the past: Jamie Collins, LB #52 overall – 2013
Like Collins, Easley is not a player who would have been drafted by New England until 2011 or later. From 2000 to 2010 the New England front office limited their draft pool to players fitting into the Bill Belichick 3-4 base defense modelled on the Joe Collier defense he learned as an assistant in Denver in 1978. The 3-4 defense was the backbone of Belichick’s success in New York, Cleveland, and New England and he was reluctant to adapt after decades of success.
After being repeatedly beaten in big games by the likes of Baltimore, the Jets, and the Manning brothers, the New England defense was forced to adapt. Bill Belichick is always going to present multiple fronts, have changing gap responsibilities on the defensive lines, and never hesitate to drop nine in coverage one play and bring eight rushers on the next, but as the NFL moves more towards an aerial attack each week, stuffing the run first and defending third down and long afterwards is no longer en vogue.
Collins was a definite step in the direction of the new NFL. Collins is a pass rusher first, a coverage linebacker for tight ends and running backs second, and finally his last responsibility is stuffing the run. Like Dont’a Hightower being picked the year prior, Collins is a true three-down linebacker comfortable in a base 4-3 or as coverage across the line from a back or tight end spread out wide. With Easley as a lighter, more disruptive pass rusher, the combination of him and Collins is the base of the defense going forward in the future.