THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — After more than a year on the sideline, Dominique Easley just wanted to hit someone. He got his chance last Saturday when the Los Angeles Rams played a preseason game against the Houston Texans.
“It was great just to be on the field again,” Easley said. “Just getting back with the guys.”
A former first-round pick, Easley thought he might never return to football after he suffered a serious knee injury — the third of his career dating to college — during the first week of training camp last season. He watched most of the Rams’ season unfold from his couch.
“That was the most hardest part, just to not be a part of it,” Easley said of watching the Rams’ turnaround season and playoff run. “But obviously I was happy just for the success that we had. [It was hard] just not to be a part of it and lose all that work that I put up with.”
After rehabbing his knee for more than a year, Easley is ready to contribute as the Rams attempt to repeat as division champions and make a Super Bowl run.
The Rams moved Easley, 26, last week from the physically unable to perform list to the active roster. Six days later he helped disrupt the Texans’ offense as he played in a game for the first time since the 2016 season.
“Really just a resilient mindset and a resilient person, that we’re hoping to see contribute to this football team,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “You hope that he’s able to stay healthy because he sure is a special player and he’s got a nice juice and enthusiasm about himself where he kind of brings people with him.”
With a loaded defensive line featuring star tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh and end Michael Brockers, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips moved Easley, a career lineman, from the interior of the line to outside linebacker.
It’s a transition that Phillips thinks will help keep the 6-foot-2, 263-pound Easley healthy as he plays in space and rushes the passer.
“Because of his history, I think it’s easier outside,” Phillips said. “You’re not pounding against a 300-something-pound guy every day — which he did normally — he played a lot of inside, but I think this gives him a little more freedom to utilize his ability.”
Phillips orchestrated a similar transition with former Houston Texans end Mario Williams in 2011. Williams led the Texans in sacks before suffering a torn pectoral muscle five weeks into the season.
Second-year pro Samson Ebukam won a starting spot during training camp, but the position opposite of Ebukam has remained in flux. Matt Longacre has been slow to return from back surgery. He started against the Texans, rotating with Easley, and recorded a sack, but his durability remains a question.
Easley provides another option.
“He does a good job of being able to create pressure,” McVay said. “… Whether he’s playing inside, whether he’s playing outside, he’s a guy that can influence and effect the quarterback in some of those pass-rush situations and that’s what we expect him to do.”
The move will require adjustment. Easley is accustomed to playing as a down lineman. On the edge, he will play in space and in a stand-up position. He could be required to drop in coverage, something he said he has done in the past.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoy it right now but it’s a position that I got to get used to,” Easley said. “You know, just because my whole life I’ve been in close quarters with everything.”
The New England Patriots selected Easley with the 29th overall pick in 2014. He played in 22 games in two seasons, recording an interception and three sacks. He finished the 2015 season on injured reserve with a torn quadriceps and the Patriots released him.
The Rams signed Easley and he finished the 2016 season with 24 tackles, 3 ½ sacks and two forced fumbles. Before suffering the knee injury during training camp last year he was on track to play a significant role in the defensive line rotation.
Against the Texans last week, Easley did not remain on the field for long. But his play was enough for McVay to determine that he will have a role going into the season.
“I know Dominique was feeling good about just getting out there and kind of getting his feet underneath him as far as playing football,” McVay said, adding, “Now we’ll kind of implement a program that we feel like is going to be sustainable throughout the course of the season.”