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Patriots 2023 free agency profile: Re-signing Daniel Ekuale would be a classic New England move

The defensive tackle will enter unrestricted free agency in mid-March.

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New England Patriots v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Finishing the 2022 season with an 8-9 record and out of the playoffs, the New England Patriots have plenty of work to do to return to postseason contention. One big part of this process will be taking care of their own class of free agents.

Quite a few players are headed for the open market, with a total of 18 players left that were with New England last year in need of a new contract. Among them is interior defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale, who is an unrestricted free agent and is scheduled to hit the open market on March 15.

Hard facts

Name: Daniel Ekuale

Position: Defensive tackle/Interior defensive line

Jersey number: 95

Opening day age: 29

Size: 6-foot-3, 300 pounds

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Experience

What is his experience? Ekuale entered the NFL in 2018 as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Washington State. He joined the Cleveland Browns and went on to spend two seasons with the organization; the first on the practice squad, the second as a member of the active roster and injured reserve. Ekuale was let go by the Browns the following year and joined the Jacksonville Jaguars. After one season that saw him move between the practice squad and active roster, he joined the Patriots in 2021.

Ekuale began his career in New England on the practice squad as well, but he did see regular action as a game-day elevation. By his second year with the club, he had established himself as a valuable rotational piece along its interior defensive line. All in all, he has therefore appeared in a combined 23 regular season and playoff games for the Patriots and registered four total sacks and 20 tackles — clearly outperforming his comparatively short stints in Cleveland and Jacksonville.

What did his 2022 season look like? After seeing action in eight games in 2021, the Patriots decided to keep Ekuale around for the subsequent season as well: he was signed to a reserve/futures pact following the expiration of his practice squad contract, giving him an opportunity to spend a whole offseason in New England and compete for a spot on the roster. However, his outlook changed in mid-June when it was announced that the would be suspended the first two games of the regular season.

The suspension delayed the team having to make a decision on his status. When he was eligible to return heading into Week 3, the Patriots decided in favor of the then-28-year-old: Ekuale was activated to the team’s 53-man roster upon completing his suspension, bolstering the depth along the defensive line. Serving in that role, he ended up seeing action in the final 15 games of New England’s season; Ekuale was on the field for 364 of a possible 1,249 defensive snaps along the way (29.1%).

Primarily being used as an interior pass rusher, the five-year veteran did have some encouraging moments in his first full season as a Patriot. He registered a pair of sacks and according to Pro Football Focus finished the year with 22 combined quarterback pressures — the fifth-highest such number on the team. His availability also was one of his best attributes in 2022; in a year that saw Christian Barmore miss seven games with a knee issue, Ekuale’s steady presence was important to the team.

That said, his season was not all roses. For starters, Ekuale missed time due to the aforementioned suspension — the second of his career after he already had to sit out four games during his 2018 rookie season due to a violation of the NFL’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs. On the field, he also had his ups and downs. Not only was Ekuale not on the same level as Barmore when he was asked to fill in, he also missed a relatively high number of tackle attempts (4 of 18; 22.2%).

Free agency preview

What is his contract history? Ekuale’s contract history includes deals with three different teams: the Browns, Jaguars and Patriots all received his signature at one point over the last five years. Despite that and the fact he has 39 games on his NFL résumé, his career earnings are relatively modest: Over the Cap estimates that he has received $2.02 million since his arrival in the league.

Which teams might be in the running? Despite playing for three teams in five seasons, Ekuale has shown he can be a serviceable role player in the NFL. Accordingly, teams might be interested in his services should he make it to the open market. The Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks are among them.

Why should he be expected back? Ekuale will not suddenly become a future All-Pro, but he has shown that he can carry out his assignments and play some solid football within the framework of the New England defense. Add the fact that he likely will not command top-dollar and re-signing him seems like a classic Patriots move to just make sure the team has some baseline level depth heading toward the draft.

Why should he be expected to leave? His two separate suspensions aside, Ekuale has one problem: he is what he is, and appears to have little room for growth. Accordingly, the Patriots might prefer to give his spot on the team to a higher-upside option — either one already on the roster or to be acquired in the offseason.

What is his projected free agency outcome? Ekuale will return to the Patriots, but his contract will not guarantee him a spot on the team for 2023. Him signing a deal for one year with a minor signing bonus, some incentives and a salary slightly above the veteran’s minimum for a player of his experience — i.e. $1.08 million — appears to be be a realistic projection.

Poll

Do you want the Patriots to re-sign Daniel Ekuale?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    Yes.
    (136 votes)
  • 19%
    No.
    (32 votes)
168 votes total Vote Now