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Easley is an explosive playmaker when on the field
With training camp right around the corner, it's time to get excited about the 2014 Patriots season. There certainly is a lot of buzz about the Patriots defense this year, largely thanks to the addition of the best cornerback in football to their roster, but first round pick Dominique Easley could be another key addition if he can live up to the considerable potential he displayed at Florida. Just as I did earlier with second round pick Jimmy Garappolo, I decided to go back, check the game tape, and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of Easley's game.

9/21/2013 Florida vs Tennessee


I picked this game to review for a number of reasons. For starters, it was a good chance to see Easley against some decent competition, as Tennessee's offensive line featured future Dolphins first round pick JuWuan James, guard Zach Fulton (a sixth round pick by the Chiefs), and tackle Antonio Richardson, a free agent signee of the Vikings who many thought could have been a second round pick if not for concerns about his knees. Furthermore, this actually turned out to be the final game of Easley's collegiate career, as he would tear his ACL in practice the following week, costing him the rest of the season.

Furthermore, this game serves as a perfect example of how Easley's underwhelming stats at Florida didn't come close to showing his impact on the game. A quick look at the box score sees Easley credited with merely one assisted tackle the entire game. However, here's what the game film shows.

0:18. Easley stunts inside and uses his burst off the line of scrimmage to overwhelm the left guard. His teammate beats him to the quarterback, largely due to a missed assignment by the right tackle, but Easley defeats his blocker nearly immediately and contributes to the complete breakdown of Tennessee's pass protection.

0:50. Lined up as a classic 3-technique (shaded on the outside shoulder of the left guard), Easley's quickness and relentless hustle enables him to get through the B gap, getting just enough pressure to force the Tennessee quarterback to get rid of the ball. Throwing into tight coverage, the pass falls harmlessly incomplete.

1:05. Lined up opposite the right guard this time, Easley uses his quickness and a nifty swim move to cleanly beat his man. Once again, one of his teammates beats him to the sack, but that shouldn't discredit his contribution to the pocket collapsing around the Tennessee quarterback.

1:22. Easley draws the attention of the TV commentators with his pre-snap histrionics, then takes an angle to attack the left guard, holding him up in his gap for a second before tossing the much bigger player aside. Once again, Easley gets no statistical recognition for the play, but his ability to gum up the middle of the field is key to holding the rushing attempt to no gain.

1:58. This time lined up as a nose tackle, Easley shoots into the "A gap" and uses his strength and leverage to wall off the guard trying (and failing) to block him. Again, one of his teammates makes the tackle, but Easley plays a disruptive role in blowing up the running play.

3:53. Now in a 1-technique, Easley takes an inside slant into the center, who Easley easily drives into the backfield. This forces the running back to bounce the play outside, where Easley's Florida teammates are able to limit him to a manageable gain.

6:14. This time lined up on the nose, Easley drives the much bigger center backwards immediately off the snap. While he doesn't make the tackle, his penetration disrupts the play before it's even started, and his teammates are there behind him to clean up the mess.

6:31. Easley starts the play lined up in an outside shade of the center, but proceeds to attack the left guard off the snap. He quickly reaches the outside shoulder of the guard and begins pushing upfield, fighting his way through a chip from the running back in the process, before using a spin move to flash across the quarterbacks body. His pressure likely influences an off-target pass that gets intercepted.

That sure is a lot of impact plays for a one assisted tackle game.

Two things particularly stand out about Easley's game. One is his relentless motor, which gives him a chance to make a play on every play. The guy plays hard every snap he's on the field, something which help him to make extra plays with the added benefit of wearing down his opponents throughout the game. Notice the hustle he shows chasing down a screen at 2:07, along with some desired nastiness in giving the ball carrier a hard shoulder down at the end of the play. Or check out 4:13, where pure effort enables Easley to at least push the pocket back, forcing the quarterback to get rid of the ball.

The other is his versatility. Easley lined up at every conceivable position on the defensive line while at Florida, ranging from nose tackle to defensive end. No matter where he lined up, his combination of quickness, strength and natural leverage made him a nightmare to block. He has uncanny burst off the snap, and often explodes into opposing blockers before they can even settle into their backpedal.  Easley also gets the most out of his skillset by doing a good job of attacking half his man, something which helps him negate the size disadvantage he faces against massive offensive linemen.

While Easley is most effective attacking from the interior of the defensive line (where his quickness is just too much for most guards and centers), his ability to play everywhere should make him a unique chess piece for Bill Belichick to deploy. It wouldn't be surprising to see Belichick move Easley around to take advantages of mismatches, and the two man stunting game between Easley and Chandler Jones has the potential to be devastating right off the bat.

Easley's violent approach to the game is mostly effective, but it does sometimes backfire on him. His tendency to jump the snap can be taken advantage of by hard counts, something that he'll certainly have to work on before taking on Peyton Manning later this year. He also occasionally opens up a lane for opposing rushers by getting downfield too quickly, with the play at 3:38 serving as an example.

However, the good far outweighs the bad with Easley, and it's hard to argue with the number of disruptive plays he makes. The Patriots haven't had a dynamic interior pass rusher in the Bill Belichick era (Richard Seymour's 8 sack 2008 season non-withstanding), and have been far too reliant on defensive ends for their pressure in recent years. Adding an interior threat like Easley could do wonders for Chandler Jones, who wore down last year as the focal point of opposing protection schemes every week. If Easley plays to potential, offenses will face a real dilemma in choosing which of the two to double team.

The Patriots have been gradually transitioning from a read-and-react 3-4 base defense to an attacking 4-3 look for years, and the addition of the relentlessly attacking Easley fits those intentions to a T. I likened the pick of Easley to the 2010 selection of Rob Gronkowski back in the spring, and I stand by those words now: if Easley can stay on the field, he has the skillset to be a dynamic, playmaking addition to the Patriots defense.

Ned Brady 7/21/2014 01:24:00 PM Edit
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