NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
In the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, NEPatriotsDraft.com will profile college prospects that potentially fit the needs and draft seating of the New England Patriots. In this ninth installment, we will take a closer look at the film behind Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley.
Coming out of Curtis High School in Staten Island, N.Y., Dominique Easley was a five-star recruit. He was the second-ranked defensive tackle in the 2010 class by Rivals.com and Scout.com. He was invited to the Under Armour All-America Game that January. And by that February, the 6’2”, 255-pound Warrior was committed to the Florida Gators.
Five months later, Easley was enrolled down in Gainesville. He flashed enough promise that summer to avoid redshirt that fall, ultimately playing in six games and recording four tackles as a true freshman. Although in 2011, the preseason All-SEC third-teamer did more than flash; he started all 12 regular-season contests to register 37 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a blocked punt.
He wouldn’t make a 13th start as a sophomore, though. A second-quarter play versus Florida State took that from him.
Easley planted his left leg in the Ben Griffin Hill Stadium grass and went down without contact. And after limping to the sideline under the assistance of Florida’s medical staff, the flourishing 288-pounder had to be carted off.
It was a torn ACL. But it wasn’t the last of him.
Despite missing spring practices, Easley was healthy to start 11 games as a junior in 2012. And despite missing two games following a knee scare against Tennessee that gave way to swelling, he went on to tally 26 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, a team-best four sacks, a fumble recovery and a pass deflection. His impact, though, went far beyond the numbers; his impact went into backfields.
That momentum carried over into 2013. The disruptive senior garnered recognition as a preseason first-team All-SEC selection. He found his name on the Lombardi Award, the Bednarik Award, the Nagurski Award and the Outland Trophy watch lists. He was voted team captain as well.
But just three games, five tackles and two tackles for loss into what was supposed to be his year, Easley’s collegiate career came to an end during practice on Sept. 24. It happened in a non-contact situation once again. This time, Easley had torn the ACL and medial meniscus his right knee.
The Gators couldn’t replace the interior void left by the 26-game starter. He wouldn’t attempt to replace his final year of NCAA eligibility, either, eventually withdrawing from classes to set his focus on recovering for the 2014 NFL draft.
“He’ll have plenty of interest,” Gators head coach Will Muschamp told The Gainesville Sun’s Robbie Andreu on Sept. 30. “He’ll be a productive guy on the next level. He’s a really good football player. He’s extremely intelligent. He gets the game. His tape speaks for itself and how he plays the game and approaches the game. He’ll be fine. There will be a lot of organizations that want him.”
One of the organizations that may want him sits at the end of Round 1: Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
If not for medical concerns, the undersized but explosive 22-year-old wouldn’t make it within shouting distance of pick 29 overall. This, however, isn’t an ordinary case. Easley does have medical concerns that could keep him off the board well through Day 2. But he also has tremendous talent.
A Tenacious, Sudden, Versatile Pass-Rusher
Production-wise, Easley’s numbers at Florida didn’t re-write the record books. Part of that was because of medical misfortune. Part of that was because the Gators rotated as many as 10 defensive linemen to keep its constituents fresh. Nevertheless, to use an adage coined by Rotoworld.com’s Josh Norris, Easley’s production was seen in his disruption.
Pass protection has to account for Easley’s diverse presence whenever he’s in the huddle, considering he loomed anywhere from nose tackle to the nine-technique during his time at Florida. They need to do so while combating his pre-snap idiosyncrasies.
Like the arm dance.
Or the alligator roll.
The lone certainty when facing the enigmatic Easley is his rapid first step. After all, few are out of their stance by the time he’s across the line of scrimmage.
He makes the most of that responsiveness by propelling into gaps or carving around on stunts.
Albeit without overpowering strength or bulk, Easley sparks plays through his functional leverage, lean and active hands. He isn’t a catcher; he is one to make first contact, extending and locking his arms as he divides the blocking scheme. From there, his downhill speed and lateral agility often yield offensive holding penalties – he drew three last season against the Miami Hurricanes, alone.
Now there are times when Easley is on the wrong end of penalties as well, since he has a penchant for jumping the snap. When he gets off late, which is seldom, he loses the upper hand. He can struggle to disengage from a matchup due to a blocker’s length, hand replacement and his 32 7/8-inch arms. And when his initial release is met with lapses in technique, he tends to lose control.
More prominently, though, Easley’s rip and swim moves are difficult to harness at the point of attack. Though he isn’t a prototypical bull-rusher, his playing style remains a dynamic one. Whether he’s aligned over the center or outside the offensive tackle, Easley is a threat to crash through gaps, slant across the face of blocks, or run the arc. He can close the pocket. He can flush quarterbacks from them.
He can also track them down.
This was seen against Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 10, 2012
Early in the first quarter on 1st-and-10, the Ragin’ Cajuns assembled in the Pistol formation for a one-back, one-tight end set for a play-action rollout. The offline tight end was set to motion to the near hash before the snap on a flat route, while the back was set to inherit the designed fake. Concurrently, the receivers were set to run fly, shallow cross and fade patterns in the hopes that Florida’s single-high 4-2 defense would bite.
Easley crouched in the seven technique opposite the right tackle and the leftward-merging offensive line.
It was a discrepancy he would exploit.
As 6’2”, 211-pound quarterback Terrance Broadway handled the snap and turned to the tailback, the line doubled Florida’s two defensive tackles, leaving Easley room to storm the corner with swift snap recognition.
He did, bending around occupied right tackle Jaron Odom while maintaining sight of the ball.
He saw where the play was heading. He saw where tight end Jacob Maxwell was, too. And at that moment, Easley showed the body control to stop his sprint and plant in one fell swoop.
He evened his frame towards the quarterback.
Then he popped his hips and chased him.
Broadway scrambled towards the sideline to buy time for his receivers. Yet in the meantime, Easley was the only one in his crosshairs.
The D-lineman caught up to the quarterback by following his eyes down a direct path. Consequently, he was the only player within eight yards of the ball.
As he got within three yards, he raised his arms into the air.
Then, after travelling 11 yards in under three seconds, he latched on. Broadway extended to stiff-arm Easley, but it was too late to evade him.
Easley lassoed the quarterback down for a sack inside the 10. Not only was it a 16-yard loss, it was a model of nimble feet, knee bend, fluid hips and closing speed.
Even if the QB is able to deliver a check-down pass, Easley is mobile and decisive enough to be an asset after the catch. He redirects and attacks. He does his best to finish each play the way he starts it.
A Violent, Relentless, One-Gap Run-Chaser
Although he lacks the physical benchmarks to be a two-gap interior lineman at the next level, that isn’t the nail in Easley’s skill set. His method of operation isn’t that of a run-stuffer; it’s that of a pass-rusher who can apply the same traits to defend the run.
Easley’s powerful lower body helps him get out of his three- and four-point stance. His hand use – and 26 bench reps of upper-body strength – helps him stack and shred. All the while, his aggressive nature helps him anticipate blocks and cut corners into the backfield.
The three-year starter’s experience all across the defensive line has gone a long way towards fine-tuning his responsibilities.
Easley isn’t the epitome of gap integrity, but he fires off the ball low and can dictate rush lanes while squaring to the ball-carrier. When gets overextended, he can get pulled to the ground. When combination blocks overwhelm him, he can lose leverage or get pancaked. And when his minimal range versus side blocks is exposed, he can be inundated on the spot.
However, even when he’s bulled back on occasion, his persistence and quick twitch spin him out of run blocks you wouldn’t expect him to. He doesn’t waste time averting a mistake. And if he is able to locate the ball in a timely manner, Easley displays the excellent closing speed and willingness to swarm rushers at the exchange, in the trenches, outside the tackle box or down the field.
At the very root of his ability versus the run, Easley is sudden enough to sweep underneath and behind blocks. He is able to do so right out of the gate.
This was illustrated against the University of Miami on Sept. 7.
On 1st-and-10 with four minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Hurricanes offense dispersed in “11” personnel. Quarterback Stephen Morris stood in shotgun, accompanied by 5’9”, 196-pound halfback Duke Johnson for an inside-zone run.
Within this orchestration, the left tackle was primed to cut-block the right defensive tackle; the left guard was set to combo-block into the second level; the right guard was prepped to block the left end on his way into linebacker territory, while the right tackle was geared to neutralize the right end.
This left 6’4”, 296-pound center Shane McDermott in the middle of it all. He would have to pull rightward to cover Easley.
The three-technique would be ready.
And he would be slicing through the vacated left A-gap.
As Morris took the snap, the center broke towards Easley, who was out of his stance and waiting to go against the grain. Synchronously, safety Marcus Maye was gunning into the box and awaiting the tight end’s block.
Those two forces would prove integral.
Morris lowered his arms for the handoff as his line worked to clear pasture ahead. But in the thick of it was Easley, who took advantage of McDermott’s overrun block with turn-key footwork, the inside shoulder and clenched arms.
As that transpired, Maye was circling the outside.
Easley spread his arms to jar McDermott’s hands free, which compromised what was left of the run block and led to an unofficial hold.
Nonetheless, he was in the backfield and fast approaching the 900-yard rusher.
Easley lunged downhill and gripped the ball-carrier at the shoulder pads, dissolving any last-ditch course for the run.
Johnson attempted to veer outside, but reinforcement was already there.
Easley funneled the running back into his teammate, who cleaned up the rest.
The run was over before it began, spanning only two seconds.
A loss of six was the byproduct.
Even if he’ll likely be eased back in as a situational pass-rusher, it doesn’t take long to notice that Easley wants to be in on every play. He wants to be in the pile.
Few get there the way he does.
Dominique Easley has been in this situation before, yet there are inevitable fears about his likelihood of enjoying a long NFL career.
We do not know what the future will bring for him. We do not know if teams will clear him medically. We do not know if he’s durable enough to be a three-down defensive lineman. We do not know how the cartilage in his knees will hold up over the course of a 16-game season.
But if there’s one thing we do know, it’s that he loves to play the game. And as long as he can, he has the drive and potential to be great at it.