With the preseason and roster cutdowns in the books, the New England Patriots are now fully on to their upcoming 2022 campaign.
The Patriots currently have 53 players under contract plus 16 more on their practice squad. Leading up to the regular season opener, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men competing for roster spots and playing time to find out who has the best chances of helping New England build on its 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale.
Name: Daniel Ekuale
Position: Defensive tackle/Interior defensive line
Jersey number: 95
Opening day age: 28
Size: 6-foot-3, 300 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 ERFA)
What is his experience? Coming off a five-year career at Washington State, Ekuale entered the NFL in 2018 as an undrafted rookie free agent. He joined the Cleveland Browns and went on to spend two seasons with the organization; the first on the practice squad (including four weeks on the NFL suspension list for a performance-enhancing drug violation), the second as a member of the active roster and eventually injured reserve. Ekuale was let go by the team the following year and joined the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After one season in Jacksonville that saw him spend time on the practice squad and active roster, Ekuale joined the Patriots’ practice squad last year. All in all, he has appeared in a combined 24 regular season and playoff contests over the course of his career. Serving primarily in a rotational role, he has registered 22 tackles as well as four quarterback disruptions — including three sacks. Along the way, Ekuale has been suspended twice: once as a rookie and again for two weeks heading into his 2022 campaign.
What did his 2021 season look like? After spending all of training camp and preseason with the Jaguars, Ekuale was released ahead of the final roster cutdown deadline. He was not claimed by any other team, nor added to the Jacksonville practice squad, and had to spend a week on the open market before finding a new home: in early September, the Patriots added him to their practice squad. He went on to spend the entire season there but was regularly elevated either through the standard protocol or as a Covid-19 replacement.
When all was said and done, Ekuale had seen action in seven regular season contests plus New England’s wild card playoff loss in Buffalo. Serving as a rotational depth option along the interior defensive line, he was on the field for a combined 115 out of 1,135 defensive snaps. While his playing time share of 10.1 percent did not necessarily stand out and his snap count was his lowest since his rookie campaign, Ekuale did have some positive moments whenever the Patriots decided to call him up to their game-day roster.
Playing several techniques along the defensive line, he registered four tackles in the running game and two against the pass, and also had two sacks: he had a quarterback takedown against the New York Jets in his Week 7 debut, and another in Week 13 versus the Buffalo Bills. While not all went well for Ekuale — he was credited with a missed tackle rate of 14.3% and never emerged past the status of role player — his fourth season in the NFL was an encouraging one, despite joining the Patriots relatively late in the process.
What is his projected role? Ekuale is not a starting-caliber player, but he can have some value as a package-specific rotational member of New England’s interior defensive line. Depending on the look, he will therefore serve as a potential DT5 or DT6 behind Davon Godchaux, Christian Barmore, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr., playing roughly one fourth of defensive snaps whenever an active part of the game-day roster.
Does he have positional versatility? During his first four years in the NFL, Ekuale has shown that he can play several techniques along the defensive line and find success as both a run defender and pass rusher. That said, his upside is higher versus the pass rather than the run: inconsistent tackling has been an issue throughout his career, which limits his value when not asked to just pin his ears back and attack up the field. He is not the most disruptive pass rusher either, but has shown a knack for pushing the pocket.
What is his special teams value? Considering that he is listed at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, Ekuale’s kicking game value looks a lot like that of other interior defensive linemen: it is rather limited. Throughout his career, he was primarily used on the field goal and extra point blocking units — including for a pair of snaps last season. Additionally, he has some experience as a front-liner on the punt return team as well.
What is his salary cap situation? The Patriots re-signed Ekuale to a reserve/futures deal following their playoff exit. The pact is a one-year contract with a base value of $1.11 million, but his two-game suspension to open the season did slightly alter it: his salary dropped from $965,000 to $857,778, which resulted in a cap number of $1 million. The pact also includes a $75,000 signing bonus proration, a combined $35,000 in roster and workout bonuses, and $35,000 in likely-to-be-earned game-day bonuses.
How safe is his roster spot? Ekuale’s two-game suspension moved him off the active roster and onto the reserve/suspended list ahead of the NFL’s roster cutdown deadline last week. He will remain there until Week 3, and the Patriots will likely receive a roster exemption upon his return. The question is whether or not they will activate him to their active team once that exemption expires. They could opt to do that, but it will likely depend on how the rest of their defensive tackle depth chart looks at that point in the season. The suspension could be a blessing in disguise.
One-sentence projection: Ekuale will not be added to the Patriots’ 53-man roster upon his return, and rather get waived in hopes of moving him to the practice squad again.