When the New England Patriots took Dominique Easley in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, they knew they were getting a player coming off back-to-back ACL tears, but they also hoped they were taking a player with incredible explosion off the line and the ability to generate instant disruption up front.
A torn ACL injury used to signify a major blow to a player's career, but with modern medicine and rehabilitation techniques, an ACL tear can now be little more than a 10-month bump in the road. However, it can often take a full year after the injury for a player to become completely confident in their rebuilt joint.
The Pats are hoping Easley's confidence in both knees has returned so he can wreak some pass-rushing havoc.
Easley showed some flashes in his rookie season, notably moving to defensive end after the Pats lost Chandler Jones to injury. Most saw Easley as solely a defensive tackle until that point, but in limited action at defensive end he showed an ability to not only set the edge, but also play on his feet, see below.
(GIF courtesy of NFL.com's Game Rewind)
The rookie played 261 snaps, appearing in 11 games with two starts and logging nine tackles, one sack and one interception.
Easley was shut down near the end of the 2014 season so he could focus on getting fully healthy for the 2015 season. A number of other minor injuries seemed to catch up with him, including a separated shoulder, while his knee seemed to continue to be an issue and his explosion never quite returned.
The lack of interior pass rush has long been a problem for the Patriots, but some of it is related to the evolution of their scheme. Last decade, the Pats primarily played a 3-4 defense, with their front three defensive linemen two-gapping and allowing the four linebackers to make plays.
As the game evolved, the Pats slowly transitioned to playing the majority of snaps in sub packages, but because they were playing early downs they couldn't just sell out to a full pass-rushing nickel front.
That's why Vince Wilfork became the key player for New England's defense, he alone was a major run deterrent, as the Pats shifted to more of a 2-5 "double nose" front.
However, that would come at the expense of interior pass rush, a vital element against the top quarterbacks in the league since they get the ball out before any edge rusher can get to them. The two big defensive tackles never generated enough push, as they were being asked to primarily hold their ground.
On clear passing downs, the Pats would employ a defensive end or more traditional 4-3 upfield defensive tackle next to Wilfork, but few caused consistent disruption that would collapse the pocket. Mike Wright's career ended due to concussions and promising young player Myron Pryor had his career derailed by injuries.
As a result the Patriots' pass rush hasn't been one with enough athletes to win one-on-one matchups and get to the quarterback.
This brings us back to Easley, who showed the kind of explosion in college that could win instantly off the snap.
The Patriots need this presence from their defense more than ever this season. With Wilfork departing to Houston there's a big hole in the defensive tackle rotation. And with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner gone from the secondary, it only puts more pressure on the front seven to attack quarterbacks.
Easley will not replace the three-down, two-gapping effectiveness of Wilfork, however he's arguably the most talented defensive tackle on the roster now. Could he become the kind of weapon for Bill Belichick in the passing game that Wilfork was against the run? The answer just might determine the ceiling of this next incarnation of the Patriots' defense.
Initial signs this offseason are that Easley will be a full go by the time training camp rolls around. If the burst off the snap that he showed in college returns, Easley could be due for a breakout year, while becoming a key pass-rushing piece in a defense that desperately needs it.
(Easley photo courtesy of New England Patriots Web site, www.patriots.com)