Friday, May 9, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper - Selection of Easley proves (again) that Belichick knows more than we do

Dominique Easley told reporters that he was surprised when he got the call from New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick informing him that he was about to become their first round draft pick.

He wasn't alone.

So quick off the snap, Easley can blow up running plays
The reaction to Easley's selection near the end of the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft had a curious effect on most folks, with "who?" or "why?" being the most common questions being asked - this blog had him rated as a 3rd to 4th round 'tweener with balky knees - but a closer examination of the merchandise reveals both where this defense is headed and why coach Bill Belichick coveted the Florida product.

There isn't a consensus among experts as to where Easley, at 6' 2" and 288 pounds, would fit in the Patriots' defensive scheme, but if there is one thing for certain, the selection of Easley in the first round signals that the Patriots are indeed headed for a more attacking, aggressive philosophy and a more standardized usage of the 4-3 defense.

"He’s a very disruptive player." Belichick said in the post-round presser. "In college, I would say his stats might have been a little bit deceiving because a lot of times he was the disruptive person on the play, but he wasn’t the guy who ended up making the tackle. Or it wouldn’t be on the stats sheet, but the reason the play wasn’t successful was his penetration and ability to be disruptive. I think he has a good knack for that. He’s an explosive player." 

Easley will most likely earn his bones as a three tech or "under" tackle and line up next to either Vince Wilfork or Sealver Siliga as the interior penetrator, the one gap disruptor that can make teams pay for doubling down on the nose in the running game - blowing up the play moving away from the nose - and will likely require either a double team or force the opposing offence to hold a running back out of the pass pattern to stay in the pocket as a last line of defense.

His lack of bulk is countered with his impressive core strength and other-worldly quickness and anticipation.  He simply is too fast for many interior linemen, and is often in the gap before they can get set in their stance - and even if they do happen to catch a piece of him, Easley has very active and violent hands, his lower center of gravity and athletic build allowing him to gain leverage and drive through blocks.

This is significant because as a rotational under tackle, he will find himself in cases of third-and-short but with his combination of quickness, strength and active hands, he can build up enough momentum to blow up the run before it even gets started - which he did many times at Florida, redirecting the play and keeping the guard off the linebacker at the second level to shoot the gap and make the play.

So...why wasn't he projected to be a first round pick?  Those two ACL injuries in college are the sole reason.  Belichick is gambling that as a rotational under tackle playing fifty percent of the defensive snaps or less, that his wickets won't be subjected to the grind that a full-time, three down plugger might.

Easley fits into a rotation with veteran Tommy Kelly, sophomore Chris Jones and redshirt "rookie" Armond Armstead that - with health - looks to be a mirror opposite of last season's injury riddled disaster, as the Patriots can now pick and choose how to attack instead of picking and choosing when to attack.

Not that his presence automatically makes the defensive line an attacking entity, but all one has to do is look back at how poorly the defense played as a whole in the gap between Wilfork's injury and Siliga activation from the practice squad to know how important the middle of this defensive line is to the rest of the squad.

Ok then, why Easley and not one of the prospects that may have been healthier?

Quite simply, speed and motor.

He's faster, quicker and more refined in technique than Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt (Tuitt was also dealing with offseason surgery on a "jones" fracture in his foot), better leverage, motor and refinement at the point of attack than Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman and more versatility than any tackle in the class with the exception of Aaron Donald, who is from a different planet.

In the end, Easley is a quick-twitch, one-gap penetrator that at one point was compared favorably with the number one overall pick, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, in as much as his "get off" at the snap and his ability to turn offensive linemen into the play rather than playing off of their blocks - his aggressive nature and willingness to forge holes for his teammate's stunts and blitzes a compelling factor in his selection.

In true Belichick form, he found a guy that is a little bit of everything along the defensive line.  He can hold up at the nose despite his lean due to incredible core strength and, in fact, may be better against the run than he is as a pass rusher.  He doesn't get a lot of sacks, but the pressure that he generates leads to the defensive ends getting better opportunity at them.

Unselfish team player. Non-stop motor. Relentless professional and as quick a penetrator as there is in the class this side of Clowney - it looks as if Belichick knew what he was doing, and he apparently wasn't the only coach who saw Easley in the same light.

"...we felt good about Dominique and there were a couple teams behind us that – we just didn’t want to take a chance on (losing) him." Belichick offered.

There are as many opinions about the Patriots' first round draft pick as there are armchair experts who regale us with them, and the national media appear to be split with Easley as a classic boom-or-bust prospect - but in a draft year when New England has a team so loaded at every level and with no holes to fill, per se, "impact depth" are the keywords...

...and when taken in that context, Belichick hit the nail right square on the head.

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