It's been a common feeling amongst Patriots fans. It's a sinking pit in the stomach; an automatic eyeroll; an internalized curse.
New England's first round pick is associated with an injury. And that's been the story of his rookie season.
Defensive tackle Dominique Easley was destined to be a top five pick in the 2014 draft before he suffered the second ACL tear of his college career. He fell down draft boards due to questions about how his 6'2, 290-pound frame would be able to hold up against the rigors of the National Football League.
That was no issue to Bill Belichick and the Patriots front office, but it's led to some frustrating moments this season. Whether Easley was unable to practice during the off-season, or just the general cringing feeling every time it took him more than a second to get up after going for a tackle. It just felt as if he was made of glass and the Patriots entire draft was dependent on his health.
It didn't help that rookie guard Joel Bitonio is playing at a Pro Bowl level and was drafted soon after Easley was off the board- especially not after the Patriots early struggles. It also doesn't help that the Patriots seem fixed on playing a considerable amount of time in the 3-4 front, which isn't aligned with Easley's skill set.
Easley is a 3-tech defensive tackle (between the guard and tackle), or even a 1-tech (between the center and guard), best fit to use his incredible first step and play in between the interior gaps. That burst hasn't appeared this season and it's clear that he's still recovering from his injury.
It also hasn't helped that they've been playing him at the 5-tech (outside the shoulder of the tackle) a fair amount of time, and the 0-tech (aligned across from the center in sub packages. It prevents him from using his tool box of skills correctly and it neutralizes his natural ability.
Still, even when he's been playing the 1- or 3-tech he hasn't made too much noise. Pro Football Focus has him for one sack, one quarterback hit, and five pressures over 221 defensive snaps on the year.
So how are we supposed to evaluate Easley? It turns out that last week's practice injury was an injury at all (the Herald's Jeff Howe says Easley's knee brace was the issue; there wasn't an injury) and that this week's absence from practice was standard for someone returning from an injury.
Easley tweaked his knee in the middle of the season and missed Week 6 against Buffalo due to a shoulder injury. There are legitimate cause for concerns.
But perhaps some of the focus should be on how he's been doing while on the field. Apart from Week 6 and his limited return in Week 7 against the Jets (21/87 snaps, 24.1%), he's slowly seen his snap count increase. He's hit 40% of snaps in four of his past five games (the lone exception being the Jets game), including a 60% performance against the Bears.
The Patriots are being extra careful with Easley's snap count for multiple reasons. First, they want to make sure he's fully healthy before giving him a full work load. Second, rookies inevitably hit a wall towards the end of the season so they're giving him a work load that will keep him fresh down the stretch. Third, Bill Belichick liked that Easley was able to play every position along the defensive line and he's now gaining a little bit of NFL experience at each spot.
Let's look at that third point: he's played the nose (in the nickel), he's played the 1-, 3-, and 7-tech in the 4-3 base (that's the NT, DT, and DE roles), and he's played 3-4 defensive end. As a rookie in limited snaps.
Easley's been doing exactly what the Patriots wanted and were expecting out of their draft pick, even if it doesn't meet expectations. He's proven his versatility, even if he hasn't been transcendent. He's still recovering and he's been working his way more and more into the line-up.
He's at 40% of the snaps and for defensive trench player coming off multiple ACL injuries, he's still getting back into the swing of things. Yes, it's frustrating that he hasn't been living up to the tape he showed in college. But he's getting back to that level and he's been providing valuable depth at every single spot along the defensive line.
That's a definitive impact and it's coming from a player who is still just scratching the surface of his potential.