Dominique Easley, Florida (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Had he stayed healthy throughout the 2013 college football season, Dominique Easley probably would have locked himself into the first half -- maybe even the top-10 -- of Round 1. An ACL injury served as a setback, though ultimately not major enough to drop Easley either out of the first round or behind fellow tackles Ra'Shede Hageman and Timmy Jernigan.
Tommy Kelly is 33. Vince Wilfork is 32 and nearly left the Patriots this offseason. Easley may not be ready to go for Week 1, but eventually he'll step into the lineup as a regular contributor.
Strengths: Easley’s most prominent attribute is that he can play convincingly and at a starter level in so many gaps. There are multiple examples of him blowing up protections everywhere from 1-tech (between the center and guard) to 3-tech (between the guard and tackle) to end. He even has the speed and turn to disrupt from a wide-nine stance. For his size (6-foot-2, 288), Easley flashes tremendous upper-body strength — he plays 20 or 30 pounds heavier than he is in that sense, but he has the field speed and agility of a linebacker when he’s in space or covering in short areas. Gets his hands on blockers right off the snap and uses his hands very well — will use hand-strikes, swim and rip moves, and pure bull-rushes to drive through or get past to the backfield. Didn’t do a lot of stunting and looping for the Gators, but he clearly has the skillset to do so.
When lined up in a stunt formation (at a 45-degree angle against the line), Easley is just about unblockable because he gets through with such explosive speed. Understands leverage and will get under a blocker’s pads, adding to his strength advantage — it’s uncanny how often he’ll push a guy back who seriously outweighs him. Can split and move from gap to gap with great agility; he’s always looking for an opening. And when he gets in the backfield, Easley is very balanced and disciplined — he doesn’t fall for foot fakes and agile moves. At his best, he’s a play destroyer.
Weaknesses: Where Easley’s size shows up in a negative sense is when he’s asked to take on double teams, especially against bigger blockers — he tends to get eaten up and can’t always get through even with all his attributes. And if a blocker gets his hands on Easley first, it’s tough for Easley to recover consistently — his hand quickness is clearly an adaptive strategy, and it works well, but he’s got that issue.
Injury issues will hold him back, to be certain. Though he recovered well from the 2010 ACL tear, the fact that he’s now had serious injuries to each knee will certainly present a red flag that will drop him at least a full round from where he would go otherwise.
When will Easley be able to help New England? Clearly, this pick has great value down the road, when Easley projects to be one of the better defenders to come out of this class. There is a reason, though, that players coming off injuries like this one tend to slip (as Tank Carradine did last year): waiting in the NFL is a difficult thing to do.
The Patriots remain in a clear championship window, albeit one that may be closing slowly as Tom Brady nears the end of his career. If Easley cannot get on the field until late in the year or 2015, will the Patriots wish they had turned elsewhere?
Of course, New England no doubt did its due diligence on Easley's health. Bet on him seeing the field sooner rather than later, and returning to his 2012 form.