Cap space is at a premium for the Patriots, with a need to extend players like linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, as well as defensive end Jabaal Sheard and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. Releasing Easley induces a $2.9 million in dead money on the cap, preventing the Patriots from using that space to retain the other players.
Beyond the cap implications, Easley was a good player in 2015, trailing only J.J. Watt in pass rushing productivity per Pro Football Focus, and was the #1 most effective interior rusher. Cutting an elite player before their third season in the NFL is unexpected, to say the least.
The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe says that the Patriots had concerns with Dominique Easley's knees and that there is "not a lot of room for improvement" on that front. CSNNE's Tom Curran says there were "philosophical difference on following injury programs." CBS's Jason La Canfora says the Patriots have off the field concerns with Easley that led to the release. NFL Insider Aaron Wilson reports that Easley is facing a lawsuit after his dog allegedly bit someone.
Easley also apparently "recorded himself speeding and weaving through traffic on a highway" and uploaded it to Instagram two weeks ago, if this Reddit post is correct (the Instagram post has since been deleted).
The culmination of all of these issues are what led to the release of Easley, and are probably why the Patriots couldn't find a trade partner for a player of Easley's caliber.
But what is the Patriots plan now?
The team has shipped away two of its most productive pass rushers in Chandler Jones and Dominique Easley this offseason, and both were the main reasons for the Patriots to remain as a base 4-3 defense. With both of them gone, the Patriots could very well transition more towards a 3-4 base, and the additions of Terrance Knighton and Shea McClellin would support that move.
A three-man line of Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and Knighton would be great in a 3-4, and the Patriots can rotate Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, and McClellin at outside linebacker- with Sheard playing more on the line in the Elephant role- and with Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower inside.
There are two factors that go against this move.
First, the Patriots played with five or more defensive backs over 80% of the time in 2015, with Patrick Chung effectively becoming a linebacker and slot corner. There are very few situations where the Patriots feel the need to use seven defensive linemen and linebackers at any given time.
Second, Easley was primarily a sub-package rusher and was never really a factor in the base defense in the first place. With Sheard and Chris Long taking over for Jones, and Knighton stepping in for Hicks, there's no real need to change the Patriots base 4-man front.
While the loss of Easley certainly hurts the team's ability to generate pressure on passing downs, the change shouldn't really affect the Patriots base defense. The defensive tackle position also happens to be the deepest position in the upcoming draft, so the Patriots could quickly find Easley's replacement for sub-packages.