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Draft Analysis: Dominique Easley fits right with Patriots plans

Posted May 8, 2014

The Patriots held onto their first-round pick and took defensive tackle Dominique Easley, a player who should help the interior pass rush immediately.

Turns out most everybody predicted what the Patriots would do if they decided to stay put and make a pick in the first round. Unfortunately for the “experts” few saw Dominique Easley as the team’s selection.

Many mock drafts tabbed defensive tackle as New England’s greatest positional need. Many had Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman as their choice while a few others thought Notre Dame’s Louis Nix would get the call. Instead it was an entirely different defensive tackle as Easley, a 6-2, 288-pound penetrator out of Florida, got the call.

“We felt really good about Dominique being available at 29,” Bill Belichick said as he opened his press conference. “He was a really good player in a good program. He was well coached by Will Muschamp and is a versatile guy who played a lot of positions along the defensive line. I’m glad he was able to last that long.”

Most experts didn’t feel Easley’s availability in the first round would be a question, but that was due to his pair of torn ACLs – one on each knee that took place about 22 months apart – rather than his ability. Easley is a small, quick, penetrating interior defensive lineman, which is a commodity the Patriots have been searching for to no avail in recent years.

Not since Jarvis Green left following the 2009 season have the Patriots had a consistent pass rushing threat from the inside. Mike Wright briefly provided some production from that spot before concussions forced him into early retirement. The Patriots signed Jonathan Fanene as a free agent in 2012 but he never saw he field due to a knee injury and was released before training camp.

Last year New England signed former CFL standout Armond Armstead but an infection cost him his entire season, and the Patriots remained searching for someone to bring some heat from the inside. That’s exactly what Easley did when healthy in Gainesville.

In 2011 as a sophomore Easley finished with 37 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. The following year he added 4 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Those numbers, which suggest an aggressive, penetrating style, are no accident according to Belichick, and may not even tell the full story.

“I think his stats may have been deceiving,” Belichick said. “There were times when he didn’t get the sack but he was the disruptive player who was responsible for the play. He’s a smart, versatile, instinctive guy. There’s not much not to like about his game.”

Belichick also described Easley as a “very explosive player,” which is not something common for interior defensive linemen. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are both entering their mid-30s and are coming off serious injuries, so the need for some youthful athleticism at the position was clearly evident moving forward.

In Easley the Patriots picked up a guy who should be able to immediately contribute as part of sub packages as an interior rusher assuming he’s healthy, and eventually he could replace the veterans full time. He’s a bit smaller than some of the behemoths like Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and other two-gapping defensive linemen Belichick has employed in the past, and that appears to be an indication that the Patriots intend to continue their trend of looking for more speed up front on defense.

Last year it was versatile linebacker Jamie Collins, taken in the second round, who added athleticism to the unit. With Easley joining Chris Jones, another undersized penetrator, and Armstead, perhaps the Patriots are continuing that move toward disruptive players looking to create havoc in the backfield rather than tying up blockers at the line of scrimmage.

Easley showed the ability to do those things in college, but last year saw his final season with the Gators end after just three games when he tore his right ACL. Clearly the Patriots felt the injury history wasn’t a problem, and if they’re right they very likely picked up a quality athlete capable to disrupting the pocket.

“We’ll work with him and see where he’s at [physically],” Belichick said. “We felt like he was the best player at that point.”

The fact that the Patriots did not trade the pick, which was likely possible given Minnesota’s leap up to No. 32 via a deal with Seattle moments later, is a clear indication that Belichick wasn’t exaggerating.

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