The Patriots drafted a former Florida Gator for the sixth time in eight years Thursday, selecting defensive tackle Dominique Easley with the 29th overall pick. Easley has a long injury history that includes two torn ACLs, leaving some to wonder whether or not this was worth the gamble.
Urban Meyer hasn’t coached in Florida in more than three years, so you’d figure the pipeline stretching from Gainesville to Foxboro would’ve burst by now, but there must be something in that swampy water that keeps Bill Belichick asking for more.
For what seems like the hundredth time, but, really, is just the sixth time in an eight-year stretch, the Patriots drafted a former Florida Gator Thursday, selecting defensive tackle Dominique Easley with the 29th overall pick.
There are some concerns, of course, since Easley suffered torn ACLs twice in college – one in each knee – and didn’t even play his senior season. He could’ve taken a medical redshirt year and returned to Florida for one more season to rebuild his draft stock (some felt he was a potential Top 15 pick before the second injury), but instead chose to enter the draft and work on his professional career, mainly to benefit his 1-year-old son, Dominique Jr.
With nothing more than some game film from his junior year, a short visit with Belichick in Florida, and a brief cup of coffee at Foxboro in April with which to base their decision on, the Patriots kept their first-round pick this time after trading it a year ago and rolled the dice on Easley, an injury-prone player with what some scouts call “limitless potential.”
In case you lost count – again – Easley is the sixth player from Florida drafted by Belichick since 2006, a weird reoccurrence that developed nearly a decade ago due to Belichick’s budding relationship with Meyer, who coached the Gators from 2005 to 2010. The previous five are no longer with the organization. One of them, Aaron Hernandez, is in jail on murder charges. When he wasn’t busy filming sex tapes or using performance-enhancing drugs, Brandon Spikes spent the rest of his time underachieving on the field, which is why he’s now in Buffalo and on Twitter comparing his time in New England to slavery. Jermaine Cunningham, the guy Belichick began scouting as a sophomore, lasted three years before the Patriots cut him, and Chad Jackson, arguably the biggest bust of the Belichick era, is catching passes for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League. The only one who turned to be any good was Jeremy Mincey, who never played a single down for New England.
It’d be unfair to assume that just because none of the previous ex-Gators worked out Easley will be a bust, too, nor would it be fair to use history in analyzing Easley’s chances of succeeding in New England. The fact is the Patriots are getting old up front. Vince Wilfork will be back this year, but he’s 32 coming off surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. His backup, Tommy Kelly, now 33, tore his right ACL five weeks into the season and also needed surgery.
There’s a chance, if healthy, Easley will be asked to play a major role in 2014. There’s also a chance he himself won’t be healthy given his history in Florida. Some would argue that surgery to repair a torn ACL is like Tommy John surgery in baseball, which has suddenly become a rite of passage for young pitchers with elbow problems due to its seemingly high success rate. In fairness, ACL injuries aren’t the death sentence they were in the past. Wes Welker, for example, needed only nine months to recover from his torn ACL before he playing football again, but it’s hard to ignore Easley’s bad luck in Florida, not only with the ACL injuries, but with the medial meniscus tear he suffered in college as well.
The fact Easley’s ACL injuries were non-contact injuries probably didn’t help his draft stock either. It’s led some to wonder why the Patriots wouldn’t just draft a more reliable player – preferably a corner or safety – or trade out of the first round rather than take a “low risk, high reward” gamble on a player with Easley’s history.
This isn't the first time the Patriots have taken a leap of a faith on a player with minimal risk on their end. Aqib Talib was considered a "low risk, high reward" acquisition when the Patriots got him two years ago, and that move worked out, but so was Tim Tebow, and that one didn't, though it didn't cost them much in dollars or time either.
Whatever the case, the acquisition of Easley doesn’t fit the mold of previous Belichick-Florida draft picks. Meyer’s been gone for a while. This is not some favor-for-a-favor deal developed through trust and mutual admiration. This is a player Belichick became enamored with for one reason or another, enough to make the Patriots roll the dice with the 29th overall pick. Time will tell whether or not it was worth the gamble.
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