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Sunday NFL Thoughts: What went wrong with the Patriots and Kony Ealy

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The Patriots tried to add a veteran to their pass rush. It didn’t work out. Here’s why.

The New England Patriots released EDGE Kony Ealy on Saturday. Here are my thoughts.

1. The Patriots acquired Ealy in exchange for dropping eight places in the draft, or for what was the equivalent of the 147th overall pick- an early fifth rounder. While the Patriots have a history of retaining a lot of their (very rare) fifth round picks over the years, the cost to acquire Ealy did not make him a roster lock.

Ealy joined an inexperienced, unlikely, and crowded competition at the position as the Patriots transitioned to their odd-man defensive front. Not only was he competing with incumbent defensive ends Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich (who ultimately retired), and Geneo Grissom, but he also faced rookies Derek Rivers (now injured), Deatrich Wise, Harvey Langi, and Keionta Davis; strongside linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Shea McClellin; and defensive linemen Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler.

With Flowers, Wise, Hightower, Van Noy, McClellin, and Guy near-roster locks, Ealy was trying to earn a roster spot over Grissom, Langi, Davis, and Butler. He simply didn’t outplay Langi or Butler and that was enough for the coaches to go in a different direction.

2. The writing was on the wall for Ealy when he didn’t play until late against the Detroit Lions, and as he trailed Flowers, Van Noy, and Langi in the depth chart. With Wise, Hightower, and McClellin all expected to make the roster, Ealy was apparently far down on the depth chart.

So when the Patriots played Ealy and Butler late in the game, it might have been the deciding factor between the two. Both faced the Lions back-ups and for as solid as Ealy looked, Butler looked much better and is much more versatile as a player. Butler also offers more upside as a young player.

3. Still, I thought that Ealy had a strong chance of making the roster because the Patriots don’t have many pure 4-3 defensive ends on the roster. With Ealy gone, Flowers and Wise are the only two that I project on the active roster. All other players are linebackers-turned-edge defenders or defensive tackles-turned-edge defenders.

But that might be enough depth for the Patriots. Flowers and Wise on one edge. Guy and Butler on the interior. Hightower, Van Noy, McClellin, and Langi can play on the edge as the strongside linebacker or the defensive end. Add in Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, and Vincent Valentine as defensive tackles and David Harris and maybe Elandon Roberts at linebacker, and the Patriots will have 13 players for their defensive front, which is in line with roster composition from prior years.

4. I’m a little surprised why Bill Belichick would say that Ealy was on a three-week “upswing” prior to the Lions, only to play him late and release him. Ealy got off to a slow start to camp and had a lot of ground to catch up, so perhaps his “upswing” was factual, but he was still behind his competition.

Belichick and the Patriots released Ealy prior to roster cuts so the veteran edge defender could land with another team before the start of the season.

“I do think he was making progress and getting better and was really working hard,” Belichick said on Saturday. “It's just one of those things that didn’t work out or wasn’t going to work out. It’s nobody’s fault. He worked hard. We worked hard. There was a lot of effort put in, but in the end we didn’t feel like this was going to work out. It gives him an opportunity about a week ahead of next week to hopefully create a better opportunity for himself. I think he deserved that. He did everything we asked him to do. It just didn’t work out for either one of us like we hoped it would.”

It will be interesting to see which team gives Ealy a chance.

5. Ultimately, Ealy’s release was a simple numbers exercise for the front office; he offered less versatility or upside on defense or special teams compared to those he was up against for a roster spot. The Patriots made a smart trade to acquire him for the equivalent of a late-round pick and the upside was all there. If it worked out, the Patriots might have added a player that could have been MVP of Super Bowl 50.

But it didn’t work out, the Patriots recognized that, and they moved on. They weren’t going to add him to the roster and they’d prefer to give other players more repetitions in the final week of the preseason to help their development- like Deatrich Wise or Harvey Langi or Geneo Grissom- or to see if they’re worth keeping on the practice squad- like Trevor Bates, Keionta Davis, or Caleb Kidder.