Defensive tackle Dominique Easley will likely be remembered as one of the Patriots’ biggest draft busts of the Bill Belichick era. On Wednesday, the Patriots released Easley, their first-round draft pick in 2014 (29th overall), and he leaves New England with just three career sacks and 25 tackles in two seasons.
But Easley is not a total bust from a football sense, as he was starting to blossom as an interior pass rusher in 2015. Though he only had two sacks in 11 games last season, Easley was the most productive interior pass rusher in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Easley pressured the quarterback once every six pass rushes in 2015, best among defensive tackles in the NFL, ahead of players such as Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins (although Easley had a much smaller sample size — 210 pass rushes compared with a little more than 500 for each of those players).
Many NFL talent evaluators believe Easley could be a breakout star in 2016. Two teams asked this reporter about Easley within 30 minutes of the news of his release breaking.
“I’m more curious about how many teams claim him than if he gets claimed,” former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner said on Wednesday. “This is a gift to someone.”
So the Patriots’ decision to release Easley set off alarms that the move was about more than just football.
Then add in the financial component. Easley’s salary this fall — about $1.08 million — is fully guaranteed. Releasing Easley on Wednesday increased his 2016 salary cap number from $1.991 million to $2.899 million.
The Patriots are essentially paying Easley to go away. They have depth at defensive tackle with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and Terrance Knighton, but not so much that they couldn’t use Easley, too.
The question, then, is why did the Patriots cut bait with their former first-round pick?
The move could simply be a reflection of Easley’s health. He tore both of his ACLs in college, and has finished each of his two NFL seasons on injured reserve — for a knee injury in 2014 and a torn quadriceps in 2015. Two league sources said independently on Wednesday that Easley is “a 25-year-old in a 40-year-old’s body.” Easley turned 24 in February.
But after speaking with several league sources with knowledge of the situation, it’s clear that Easley and the Patriots were never a good fit.
It is not known if there was a single incident that led to Easley’s release. But a portrait emerged Wednesday of a player who struggled with maturity and his responsibilities of being a professional athlete.
“Saw that coming,” one of Easley’s former Patriots teammates said upon hearing the news. “Injuries and locker room cancer.”
Easley’s relationship with the Patriots got off on the wrong foot when he arrived to their rookie minicamp shortly after the 2014 draft and couldn’t participate — not because of his knee injury, but because of injuries to his ankles, arms, and wrists sustained when bitten by his pet pitbull two weeks before the draft. The dog, which weighed more than 100 pounds, bit two other people plus an animal care worker and had to be euthanized in Palm Beach County, Fla.
Easley had not told any teams about these injuries prior to the draft, and the Patriots were not happy when they found out, as the injuries set him back in his ACL rehab. Easley was on the field for Week 1 of 2014 but didn’t get significant playing time until Week 3. He really only played in nine games his rookie year, and was placed on IR with three games left in the regular season.
Easley’s love of aggressive dogs has caused him other problems. One of his friends, Wiley Brown, filed a lawsuit against in Easley this past January seeking at least $15,000 after being attacked and bitten while staying at Easley’s house. The suit, filed in Palm Beach County, claims that Brown suffered permanent scarring, among other maladies. Easley is also bracing for the possibility of two other lawsuits being filed against him by other parties.
Easley came to the Patriots with a reputation of having an aloof personality, and he lived up to the billing. He already has fired two agents and three financial advisers in his two years in the NFL, and last week hired popular NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus as his third agent. When reached on Wednesday, Rosenhaus declined comment.
Multiple league sources said Easley was unreliable and immature.
“He’ll make an appointment for a massage and not show up,” one source said. “He’s just very disrespectful and irresponsible.”
“I think he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” another source said. “He comes across as an entitled kid. He reneges on everything. He thinks he’s invincible.”
When it came to football, Easley played by his own rules, which didn’t go over well with Belichick and staff. He routinely ignored requests to rehab his injuries with the Patriots’ trainers, and instead did it on his own. Most players rehabbed their recent injuries in the Patriots’ facilities, but when Easley was placed on IR in 2014 and 2015, he immediately left the team and did his own thing. This past offseason he traveled to Germany to seek alternative treatments for his knee.
The Patriots grew so fed up with Easley during his rookie year that they placed him on IR in December and told him to stay away and rehab on his own until the offseason program began in April. When the Patriots were raising the Lombardi Trophy in Arizona, Easley was partying in Las Vegas.
The Patriots “never liked him from the get-go, and part of the problem was he would never listen to the medical advice,” one source said.
And the feeling was mutual, with Easley privately telling people in 2014 that he wanted to be traded. An official request was never made.
On Wednesday, the Patriots did both sides a favor and cut bait with Easley. They originally signed him to a four-year, $7.3 million contract with $5.89 million fully guaranteed (his first three NFL seasons). It is unclear if the Patriots attempted to trade him this offseason, but it is surprising — and perhaps telling — that they did not get even a seventh-round pick for Easley.
Easley is due approximately $1.08 million this fall, and if Easley is claimed off waivers, then the new team assumes Easley’s salary and the Patriots don’t owe him anything.
But Easley’s contract does have offset language, so if Easley clears waivers and then signs for, say, $800,000 with another team, the Patriots only have to pay the difference.
Whether or not Easley is claimed, the Patriots still increased their salary cap hit by almost $1 million just to be rid of him.
It is unclear if there was a single incident that prompted his release. But it has become increasingly clear that the Patriots’ decision to release Easley was about a lot more than just his football abilities.