Dominique Easley could be the next John Randle or the next Steve Emtman. He could finish his career with 138 sacks or just 19 games started. He could make the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the Knee Surgery Hall of Fame.
Among defenders in this year's draft, only Jadeveon Clowney has as much upside as Easley. But Easley is a bigger risk than Clowney. Clowney might not be motivated enough to achieve his full potential. Easley may spend his entire career in Dr. James Andrews' waiting room.
Easley would be getting Ndamukong Suh-caliber attention right now if not two ACL tears, one on each knee, during his college career. Instead of earning mention among the top five picks, Easley is the draft's painful secret: the potential superstar teams will be wary to take too great a risk on.
Disruption. If you remember John Randle, you remember his first step off the line of scrimmage, a sudden blur that immediately disrupted any blocking scheme designed to stop him. Easley has that first step. It's initial quickness from a defensive lineman at a level you only see a few times per decade.
Easley was consistently the first player off the line of scrimmage for the Gators defense -- a defense that included the likes of Sharif Floyd (a first-round pick by the Vikings last year), and Dante Fowler (a top 2015 prospect) during Easley's career. Easley lined up all over the formation, so everyone from centers to left tackles found themselves beat, time and again, from the moment the ball was snapped. The following GIF shows a typical example of what Easley did regularly to interior offensive lines.
A sudden initial step alone does not make a defensive lineman a potential superstar. Easley's second moves are as explosive and emphatic as his first. When rushing from the outside, he torques inside with his hips while out leveraging his pass protector. On the inside, a sidestep and a swim move is usually enough to penetrate the line of scrimmage. The amount of 1-on-1 battles Easley wins per game, against SEC blockers, is remarkable. Only the Clowney of 2012 comes close.
Easley's quickness makes him one of the best stunt defenders of the last decade. After his blurry get-off, he crosses a center or guard's face so suddenly that the blocker can barely react, all the while swatting away the blocker's arms. In 2012, it was not unusual to see two blockers flailing helplessly at Easley while Floyd, looping behind him, raced untouched into the pocket.
Once he had blockers out of position, Easley's power took over. See for yourself:
Easley had only 5.5 sacks in his college career, one of the great misleading stats of history. You can see the flagrant holding penalty in the GIF: he forced three of them in that Miami game alone. Easley flushed many quarterbacks into the arms of Floyd, Fowler, Leon Orr and others. His game film is a parade of rushed throws, tipped passes, and screen passes that never materialize because Easley reaches the quarterback before the blockers set up. And there are teams that practically gave up trying to throw downfield. Missouri in 2012 started their game with non-stop dumps into the flat to avoid the Gators pass rush. When Missouri began to throw downfield, a defensive line feeding frenzy erupted.
Easley disrupts blocking schemes and causes chaos in the backfield whenever he takes the field. So why aren't we talking about him in the same breath as Clowney, Khalil Mack, and the quarterbacks?
The simple, unfortunate fact is that Easley does not take the field very often.
Frustration. Easley tore his left ACL during a game against Florida State in November, 2011. At the time, he was just coming into his own. One of the top recruits in the nation in 2010, he had 1.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss in 12 games, flashing amazing athleticism that caught the scouting world's attention.
He rehabbed quickly, making it back onto the field for Florida's 2012 season opener. But swelling in his left knee required Easley to miss two midseason games. He wore a brace for the remainder of the season. Even with the brace, Easley was his explosive self. He registered 3.5 tackles for a loss in the 2012 Sugar Bowl against Louisville. He was primed for a breakout senior season.
Easley tore his right ACL just three games into that season, adding a medial meniscus tear. Dr. James Andrews performed surgery a month later. Easley made it clear immediately that he would not apply for a medical redshirt to return to Florida. He had nothing to prove, but everything to risk.
Easley spoke to the press and interviewed with teams but did nothing else at the Combine in late February. He put the best possible spin on his injury history. "I tore my ACL in 2011, I got faster in 2013. So when I get back from this ACL, it's going to make me nothing but faster."
But Easley knew then that he was doubtful to participate in Florida's Pro Day, which took place last week. Easley did not work out, but hopes to be able to schedule a separate event in mid-April. Even with the draft now on May 8-10, that's cutting it close for teams trying to determine if he is worth the risk.
It's easy to say that a team should invest a first-round pick in a player with Easley's rare talent, but the downside can be a disaster. Steve Emtman was one of the greatest college defenders in history. The Colts made him the first player in the 1992 draft, and Emtman started strong. Then he suffered a partial ACL tear in his left knee. That was followed by an even more severe injury to his right knee. Finally, a ruptured neck disc destroyed the illusion that Emtman would ever be more than a shell of the star he was at the University of Washington. Emtman played in just 50 NFL games, most of them as a backup. The Colts were back to picking near the top of the draft just two seasons later.
Emtman's college injury record was relatively clean. Imagine the risk involved in a player who has already had two major injuries, plus complications, in three seasons.
Easley said that he was running and making lateral cuts as of February. Teams will no doubt schedule private interviews with Easley in the weeks before the draft, and their doctors will want some quality time with his knees. There are tests to determine the overall health of a reconstructed knee, but they are not foolproof. And even if Easley came back stronger and faster after his first ACL tear, it's not likely to keep happening with this one, or the next one.
Uncertainty. The healthy Easley can help any team that uses a 4-3 defense. He is a natural three-tech -- the guy who lines up between the guard and tackle and usually knifes between them -- but can play anywhere from the nose to the wide-9 end position if a defensive coordinator wants to vary his looks. Cover-2 teams like the Buccaneers, Bears, and Cowboys would be drooling over the healthy Easley and wondering what they would have to trade to move up and draft him.
The injured Easley is just another guy running in the pool.
The healthy Easley will almost certainly arrive by training camp. Easley knows the rehab process, and may have delayed any Pro Day heroics because of his memory of that 2012 relapse. He will come ready to play. But how long will he stay ready?
The teams that can afford the risk are clustered at the bottom of the first round. The Seahawks, 49ers, and Patriots got where they are with calculated gambles, and even though Easley isn't a perfect system fit for some of those teams, there's always room on the defensive line for a player who can practically beat the snap into the backfield. If those teams pass, it will be on to day two.
In the second or third round, much of the risk evaporates and Easley becomes the best value on the board and the ultimate sleeper. Well, perhaps not the ultimate sleeper. John Randle was not drafted at all.