After a report by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero on Friday that the Patriots were “gauging the trade market” on defensive end Kony Ealy, it turned out that the team went ahead and outright waived him.
An acquisition by the team back in March from the Carolina Panthers along with their third-round pick (72nd overall) for the Patriots second-round pick (64th overall), there were moderate hopes that Ealy would be able to have a revival of sorts with his new team. After having three sacks in a Super Bowl 50 loss to the Broncos, hopes were sky-high for Ealy going into 2016 with Carolina. Unfortunately, he only accumulated five sacks during the 2016-2017 season and was subsequently traded a few months after the season ended.
After losing Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long in free agency, the Patriots were looking to help bolster their rather barren defensive end/edge rusher depth and acquired Ealy. He got off to a rough start during training camp and never seemed to bounce-back. He was withheld from the first day of training camp for a non-injury issue that he refused to get into much detail about. When asked, Ealy said “You have to ask Coach Bill. Me and him had something going on.” Ealy seemed to struggle during the beginning part of training camp and didn’t do much to separate himself during the three preseason games he played in either.
The writing on the wall seemed apparently on Friday when Ealy did not play in the Patriots “dress rehearsal” against the Lions until the third quarter, after the starters had finished for the day. And while the team was potentially looking into moving him in a trade rather than waive him, they were unsuccessful. He would be claimed by division rivals, the Jets on Sunday.
So overall, what does Ealy’s departure for the team mean for the team overall? Let’s take a look...
THE PATRIOTS ARE EVEN MORE THIN AT THE DEFENSIVE END/EDGE RUSHER POSITION...
After losing veteran Rob Ninkovich to retirement during training camp and also losing rookie Derek Rivers to a season-ending knee injury, Ealy was one player that many hoped would step up to help fill the gaps on the depth chart. With him being waived, the team is down yet another player at the position. With that, the team’s depth chart is once again reset.
Trey Flowers will be relied on even more as the team’s top pass-rusher who will play both on the outside but also on the interior defensive line as well. Beyond that, there are only a true defensive ends on the roster. A lot will be relied on rookie Deatrich Wise Jr., who was having a terrific training camp before suffering a head injury in week one of the preseason. He did return to practice this past Tuesday but has yet to return to game action since his injury.
Geneo Grissom will be heading into his third season with the Patriots. Despite that, he has yet to make his mark after being selected in third round back in 2015. He spent part of last season on the practice squad and has yet to do much this preseason either. He has not played in the past two preseason games, only hurting his chances of making the team further. Even if he does make the team, he won’t be relied to do much other than play special teams.
Rookie undrafted free agent Keionta Davis was signed by the team a couple of weeks ago but his roster odds don’t look good either. His best bet might be joining the Patriots practice squad if he clears waivers once roster cut-downs take place.
THE PATRIOTS WILL NEED TO GET CREATIVE TO HELP FILL THE VOID...
The team will clearly need to come up with different ways of plugging the hole they have for pass rushers. As we have seen in recent weeks, the Patriots have used linebacker Kyle Van Noy and rookie Harvey Langi as edge pass rushers/edge settlers and play much closer to the offensive line. This is part of an experiment by the team using their plethora of linebackers as situational pass-rushers.
We could very well see this more often as we progress into the season, with Van Noy, Langi (assuming he makes the team), Shea McClellin (who was used as an edge rusher in the later part of last season) and even Dont’a Hightower playing less of the traditional off-the-ball linebacker position. It could lead to more 5-2-4/5-1-5 defensive formations as the team may use more players up front while also functioning in the nickel often, as they did last season as well.
David Harris will likely play one of the team’s main linebackers and operate in coverage quite a bit, as we saw this past Friday against the Lions. Elandon Roberts, who is dealing with a ribs injury still and may be on the roster bubble himself, could also be asked to play more as a linebacker if he makes the team as a run-stopper. Trevor Bates, who also is on the roster bubble as well, could be another option at linebacker as we saw him quite a bit on Friday.
The Patriots seem determined to try and address this issue internally, so transitioning some of their linebackers like Hightower and McClellin especially to more of a pass-rusher/edge setter role seems like a likely option right now.
IT OPENS UP ANOTHER ROSTER SPOT FOR SOMEONE ELSE...
While Ealy obviously didn’t make the team, he was projected by most for awhile to make the final roster. With him now out of the picture, the team has a few options for what they might do with his roster spot.
As mentioned above, Roberts and Bates are fighting for a spot on the Patriots 53-man roster. Roberts likely has the edge over Bates right now if it came down to the two of them, but with the additional linebacker depth they’ll likely need, we could see Ealy’s spot go to a linebacker.
Another option would be at wide receiver, where the team also lost star wide receiver Julian Edelman for the season due to a knee injury. The Patriots could opt to only go with four wide receivers (five if you include Matthew Slater, who doesn’t play the position very often), Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola. Austin Carr and Devin Lucien seemed to be in a battle for most of training camp and the preseason for a sixth wide receiver spot if one ever opened. With Edelman’s injury, a fifth spot now seems open. Carr and Lucien have both flashed this preseason, so it could come down to whoever does better in the remaining practices/preseason game.
Adam Butler is a player who has stepped up this preseason and could be the next undrafted free agent to make this team. The problem with that is the team is already well-stocked at the defensive tackle position with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine and Lawrence Guy for their depth. His talent may be too hard to pass up and the team could try and use Ealy’s spot to create a spot for Butler, much like they did for Anthony Johnson last season.
Lastly, the team could look at some free agents to bring in. Perhaps the team looks at true defensive ends like Dwight Freeny, Jared Odrick (who the team had in for a visit during the offseason), Mario Williams or the recently released Desmond Bryant to help boost their depth at the position. Or perhaps they look at inside linebackers to provide depth behind Harris and Roberts (potentially) like Dannell Ellerbe or Perry Riley. Getting some depth at either position would be beneficial as the season is right around the corner.
EALY’S RELEASE DID LITTLE TO HELP THE TEAM’S CAP SPACE...
According to Patriots salary cap guru, Miguel Benzen (@PatsCap), the team create $188,660 in cap space by waiving Ealy. It is not much, especially considering the team has a healthy $14,248,983 in cap space with the season right around the corner. Perhaps with the cap space they have, the Patriots can go out and sign a free agent or two to help with their front seven depth.