Suffering a non-contact injury on Wednesday after just three games played in his senior season, Dominique Easley’s collegiate career appears to have come to an end. With a confirmed diagnosis of an ACL and medial meniscus tear in his right knee, NFL teams now have an extremely difficult evaluation to make.
The difficulty of the evaluation comes in a two-fold manner from my perspective, as Easley already lacks certain measurables. Although he maximizes his actual length and plays with enough functional length at the point of attack, Easley’s lack of plus arm length will limit him to an interior position at the next level. For the University of Florida, Easley has played all across the line of scrimmage and impressed with front versatility, as he’s played starter snaps at multiple interior defensive line positions (1-technique and 3-technique) and defensive end.
At each of those positions, Easley was most successful at getting up the field, using his high motor and high-level quickness to defeat blockers off the snap. Issues have arisen when teams decide to run directly at him, particularly in cases where he’s at defensive end. So the takeaway here is that his impact at the next level will require him to be inside on most occasions, working within a one-gapping, aggressive defensive system that allows him to stunt, twist and penetrate upfield. You don’t want to ask him to play 5-technique or a strongside end position and “hold the point of attack” –that’s not what he’s used to doing or what he’s best suited for.
Secondary and arguably more critical in making Easley a tough eval is the fact that this right knee injury is his second surgically repaired knee. Tearing his left ACL in November of the 2011 season, Easley actually missed time early in the 2012 season due to swelling in that left knee. For 4-3 teams that sorely lack a disruptive player on the interior or any pass rush from the inside, it will be difficult to gauge just exactly where you should take this prospect. Will his right knee have swelling issues in the same manner he did with his left knee, and what kind of timetable should teams expect to deal with?
At this point, it does not make sense for a player like Dominique Easley to petition for a medical redshirt and return for an additional season. As a starter in the SEC for a little over two seasons, Easley has put out plenty of quality tape to this point. Having started at the 3-technique position in 2011, defensive end in 2012 and a shade nose tackle for the start of this current 2013 season, NFL teams have a full resume and can easily evaluate where he fits in with their specific scheme. The question now becomes, “What position is he best suited to play at the next level, how long will he be out, and will he be the same explosive player?
While I cannot adequately answer how long this injury will keep Easley out or if it will sap his explosive physical traits as an athlete, I strongly believe that his best fit is inside at defensive tackle. The struggle that myself and other draft evaluators have from here on out is whether or not Dominique Easley should be a 3-technique or 1-technique (shaded nose tackle). Easley compares favorably to current Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. Not overly big or powerful but winning with snap anticipation and great quickness, Jay Ratliff uniquely made a career for himself as a nose tackle in former head coach Bill Parcell’s 3-4 defense. Despite the unconventionality of Ratliff playing a pure 0-technique, it was a matchup nightmare slower interior blockers that simply couldn’t get a handle on him.
In only a few games this season, Dominique Easley has caused similar matchup problems for opposing offenses with his quickness off the line of scrimmage, and presents equal, if not superior, skills in comparison to Ratliff regarding foot speed, body control and hand usage as a pass rusher.
As stated earlier, using a variety of punch-counter punch maneuvers to knock opponents off balance, Easley consistently lands his hands first and directs the point of attack with his quickness. You see the ability to convert speed to power when blockers fall back on their heels, but more importantly Easley presents the body control to absorb and maintain his upfield momentum when met by the blocker. In short, he’s a difficult player for guards or centers to block in pass protection. I’ve yet to make my decision on where I would place Dominique Easley, but he could play both interior positions for just about any 4-3 defense in the NFL.
From a production standpoint, Easley has performed very well as a Gator, despite his minimal output as a freshman (4 total tackles in 3 games played). During the 2012 and 2011 seasons he played as a starter, Easley totaled 63 total tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. In discussing the current season, although not tremendously productive through the early part of the 2013 season (just 5 tackles and 2 tackles for loss in 3 games played), Easley’s presence has been readily seen when you put on the tape. Having a devastating first step and consistent anticipation for snap counts, Easley wins with quickness and burst off the line, penetrating and causing disruption with his get-off. Easley is quick to counter the blocker’s hands and get upfield into the backfield. Many of his teammates tackles for loss and sack totals can be directly attributed to Easley’s performance.
Now all of that isn’t to say Easley remains a perfect on-field prospect and only has to overcome an injury to be the next Warren Sapp. Far from perfect, Easley must improve his functional anchor strength at the point of attack and showcase more willingness to hold gap integrity against the run. At the next level, he’ll have to show more discretion in working up the field and break down at heel depth on a more consistent basis. As noted earlier, I do worry about Easley’s arm length measurements in terms of projecting his versatility as an NFL prospect.
Still, his best fit remains inside and that arm length concern is mitigated by that fact alone. Based on 2013 tape, Easley would have likely been a late first or early second round pick; as it stands now, Easley could project anywhere from round 2 to round 4, with his final draft position to be determined by medical checks at the NFL Combine and whether or not he can workout fully for teams. A gut-wrenching injury for a prospect on the rise, we’ll be pulling for Dominique’s full recovery.