Dominique Easley came into the NFL as a highly touted prospect, albeit one with significant health concerns. In his college career at the University of Florida, the defensive lineman showed enormous potential, but two ACL injuries, one to each knee, caused him to tumble down draft boards. Easley’s biggest strengths – quickness off the snap, sudden bursts of speed, and relentless energy – all stemmed from his explosiveness, so his medical history created doubts about his ability to make the NFL transition. The Patriots saw the upside at an area of need and drafted him in the first round, taking a big risk in hopes of a big reward. Patriot fans were excited by the prospect of Easley wreaking havoc alongside Chandler Jones and a healthy Vince Wilfork.
Through the first five weeks of the season, Easley has played about 40% of the defensive snaps and demonstrated flashes of that promise. As one might expect, the former Gator has had his rookie struggles, but he has shown marked improvement with each passing week.
Week 1 @ Miami
Easley’s debut came late in the first quarter, spelling Wilfork for the first of many occasions in south Florida’s heat (89 degrees at kickoff). Throughout the game he displayed good instincts, twice recognizing screen passes and peeling back to provide secondary pursuit. Though unable to apply much pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Easley held up well against blocks by seasoned Miami opponents. His first career action as a pro demonstrated good positioning and reasonable push against the offensive line, but no sustained pocket attack.
In the clip below, Easley (#74) gets a warm welcome to the NFL from Dolphins’ Samson Satele. Lined up in a 4-point stance he tries to bull rush Satele, but the veteran center gets his hands on him before he can straighten up and and drives the rookie into the ground. Easley manages to fight his way into the backfield but not without being informed that he is no longer in the SEC:
In the 4th quarter, even after the earlier embarrassment, Easley generally sticks with the 4-point stance and begins to generate some push. He forces the Miami ball carriers to alter their runs while he holds his gap assignment. Easley’s best play of the game comes late in the final period, playing in a heavy goal-line package on 2nd and 5. Easley does an excellent job of standing his ground against the tackle, closing the running lane and preventing any progress:
As noted earlier, Easley rotated in and out of the game with Wilfork, no mean task. Opponents can adjust their schemes to account for the Patriots’ mammoth defensive tackle; however, Easley is a different physical presence than the immovable man-mountain. He is not yet equipped to push the pile and needs game experience to handle these adjustments. He was often stymied by double teams and didn’t have the strength to fight through them. Once he changed to a 4-point stance he started generating much more consistent drive into the backfield.
Week 2 @ Minnesota
Easley’s action early in this game is primarily on 3rd-down passing situations. He gets reasonable thrust against the offensive line, but never enough to generate any real pressure on quarterback Matt Cassel. In a few cases he gets too upright in his rush and is easily taken out of the play by the offensive line, possibly overcompensating after his experience with Satele in Week 1.
Late in the 2nd quarter he plays a full series and does an excellent job of getting into the backfield, collapsing the pocket with an assist from Sealver Siliga. This results in Easley flashing in front of Cassel as the ball is released for an incompletion:
As the game progresses, Easley sees more work with starters given some rest. He does a better job of creating push in pass plays and getting near the quarterback, but continues to fall short of pressuring Cassel through individual effort. His primary function appears to be occupying blockers to allow lanes for the linebackers’ clean rushes.
Easley’s highlight in this game, shown below, is an incredibly athletic play for an interception. He begins by getting excellent penetration but quickly recognizes he won’t reach the QB in time, so he raises his hands up to swat at the throw. As the ball passes him he quickly turns around to follow the play and sees it ricochet. Covering more than five yards in one fluid movement, Easley secures his first NFL takeaway:
Against Minnesota, we start to see glimpses of what we hope Easley will become: a well rounded defender with the power and skill to get after the QB and the instincts to track the ball and chase down plays.
Week 3 vs. Oakland
Once again, Easley is limited to primarily 3rd-down duty, typically in nickel or dime packages and often as the only down lineman in those formations. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones occasionally drop a hand to the ground but usually remain standing to disguise their intentions. In most cases Easley holds his position admirably against the offensive line but doesn’t generate any pressure on his own:
In the 4th quarter Easley sees some play on earlier downs. He starts to get some real push against a fatigued offensive line and forces Oakland quarterback Derek Carr to move around the lineman he’s taking on. He also holds up well against run blocks, maintaining his position and forcing the runner back inside where Wilfork and Dont’a Hightower clean up:
Week 4 @ Kansas City
To start the game, Easley is primarily the down lineman for long third-down situations in dime and nickel packages. He fails to produce much pressure as he is just one of three or four Patriots rushing the passer. He does hold his ground and fills his gap assignment, but makes little progress against the Chiefs’ stout offensive line. Late in the 2nd quarter he gets a chance to play a full series. He shows excellent recognition on a screen play, quickly diagnosing the misdirection and adjusting his pursuit of the ball. Here, he maintains position to hold the edge until it is clear the runner is going the other direction. Then he is able to release from his block, catch up to the play, and assist on the tackle:
The next clip demonstrates his quick recognition of a bubble screen. He starts upfield, sees the play developing, reverses direction, and takes an excellent angle to the runner.
Week 5 vs. Cincinnati
With Chandler Jones nursing a shoulder injury, Easley drew the starting assignment at defensive end against the Bengals. He had an excellent start, setting the edge and forcing an early run outside despite being held by the Chiefs’ lineman. On a play later in the game, he got a bit too far upfield but recovered well to force the runner out of bounds.
Here, he’s lined up as a DE in a base 4-3 and gets excellent push 1-on-1 against the left tackle:
Easley continues to honor his assignments, containing well and occasionally attempting to penetrate the pocket. Late in the 2nd quarter, he gets flagged for a block on a dead ball and on the next play he goes to the sideline with an injury. He tries to get around a block but tight end Jermaine Gresham grabs Easley’s right arm. The rookie exits, his appendage hanging limp, and he sees no further action in the game:
Easley exhibits promise with his technique but gets no push at all against NFL offensive lines. He doesn’t have the strength to force his way through blockers but can stay with them to allow cleaner lanes for teammates. As the season progresses and he becomes more accustomed to the strength of veteran linemen, it is possible that Easley starts to win more of those battles and make plays on his own. The coaching staff trusts him enough to be the primary lineman in nickel and dime packages even without being able to impose his leverage. While he is not yet the wrecking ball for which Patriots fans had hoped, he is showing enough steady progress and flashes of athleticism to build excitement.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jturner1540.