FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ defensive line isn’t getting any younger, and the team faced that reality last season when it lost Vince Wilfork and his replacement, Tommy Kelly, to season-ending injuries.
With a need to add youth to the defensive front, the Patriots opted to hold on to their 29th overall pick and selected Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley in Thursday’s first round of the NFL Draft.
The irony is that the Patriots opted to bolster an aging defensive line with a player who suffered ACL tears in both knees during his college career.
Easley played only three games in his senior season after tearing his right ACL in a non-contact practice drill, but the Patriots felt the explosive run-stopper was too talented to pass up.
“We felt good about Dominique, and with other teams behind us, we just didn’t want to take a chance on it,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I feel like he’ll be all right.”
Many draft analysts expected the Patriots to draft a defensive tackle and there were players available with fewer health concerns, such as Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt.
But the Patriots opted for Easley, who said he was surprised when his name was called.
“I was very excited when I saw the Massachusetts number come up on my phone,” said Easley, native of a Staten Island, N.Y. “I’ve been watching the Patriots for a long time. [Former Florida coach] Urban Meyer had a lot of players go to the Patriots and it’s a winning team, so I’m really excited.”
Easley, who tore his left ACL in 2011, insisted he’s healthy, but refused to say he’s 100 percent.
“It was discussed somewhat,” Easley said when asked how much his health was a topic in the draft process. “I’m really just excited to be a Patriot now and get up there and get to work, learn the system, and do whatever the team asks me to do.”
In 32 games with the Gators, Easley recorded 72 tackles and 5½ sacks.
At 6 feet 2 inches and 288 pounds, Easley was an imposing run stopper, often requiring the attention of two blockers.
Last season, he was named a preseason All-Southeastern Conference selection, but he didn’t get much of a chance to showcase his skills.
Still, Belichick is confident Easley can be an asset.
“He’s a very disruptive player,” Belichick said. “In college, his stats might have been a bit deceiving because he was the disruptive person on the play but wasn’t the guy that ended up making the tackle, wouldn’t be on the stat sheet, but the reason the play wasn’t successful was because of his penetration and his disruption.”
Last season, Wilfork played just four games before getting injured, while Kelly, also 32, was injured in November. The Patriots signed 33-year-old defensive end Will Smith on Monday.
Easley said he is excited to come to New England and learn from a veteran such as Wilfork.
“It’s going to be a great experience, to get to learn from an old guy, a veteran that’s real good,” Easley said. He’ll teach me some stuff. It’s going to be real exciting to learn from him.”
The draft resumes Friday at 7 p.m. with Rounds 2 and 3, with the fourth through seventh rounds on Saturday.
The Patriots own seven more selections, including a second-round pick (No. 62), a third-round pick (No. 93), two fourth-rounders (Nos. 130 and 140), two sixth-rounders (Nos. 198 and 206), and a seventh-rounder (No. 244).
“It’s definitely a restart,” Belichick said. “We’ll take stock of where things are, reorder the board, and take a look at what’s there after 32 teams have selected.”
Scouting report on Dominique Easley
Listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 288 pounds at the NFL Combine in February . . . Considered a second selection by draft experts . . . Tore his right knee three games in last season just two years after tearing his left knee . . . Had just 5½ sacks but played in a six-man rotation at Florida . . . Explosive edge rusher . . . Work ethic lauded . . . Doesn’t give up on plays . . . Great swim move on the rush . . . Played inside at tackle and outside on the edge at Florida . . . Lack of bulk seen as a weakness to play inside in the NFL . . . Will overun plays because of aggressiveness.