IRVINE, Calif. -- It was a Tuesday afternoon on the campus of UC Irvine. The Los Angeles Rams were in pads for the first time in training camp, running an 11-on-11 drill with some rare storm clouds hovering overhead. A running play went to the right. Dominique Easley pursued the ball, and then his right knee buckled. And that was it.
Easley, on track to be one of the Rams' three starting defensive linemen, tore his ACL.
He will not play this season.
"It's really unfortunate for our team because of what he meant on the field but also in the locker room," Rams coach Sean McVay said after Wednesday's practice. "He has a great presence, always had a good smile on his face, great disposition and demeanor. He will be missed."
Michael Brockers is the only starting defensive lineman in practice these days. Easley's ACL tear -- his third in seven years -- comes in the midst of Aaron Donald's holdout, and it tests the Rams' depth at a position that has lost some in recent years.
Ethan Westbrooks (an undrafted free agent from 2014), Louis Trinca-Pasat (on injured reserve all of last season) and Tanzel Smart (a sixth-round pick this year) will try to fill the void in the meantime.
"You expect those guys to do what they came here to do, and that's be a professional, and when your number is called, step up and make the plays that are expected of you," Brockers said. "No worries here. It's part of football. You hate to see a guy like that, an important guy like that, go down. But there's always a theory -- and I know it's cliché -- about next man up. That's the atmosphere we have around here."
Easley tore the ACL in each of his knees while at Florida, which led him to drop to No. 29 overall in the 2014 draft. He then finished the 2014 and 2015 seasons with the Patriots on injured reserve, first with an injured knee and then with an injured thigh.
The Rams picked up Easley after he was released in April 2016 and watched him turn in a productive season as a key backup. The 25-year-old played in all 16 games, recording a career-high 3.5 sacks and forcing two fumbles. Pro Football Focus graded him 30th among 125 qualified interior defenders.
The Rams brought Easley back with an original-round tender and were impressed with his play during the offseason program and in training camp. With William Hayes now in Miami and Robert Quinn transitioning to outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, Easley was set to start alongside Brockers and Donald.
"You see Dominique go down, Aaron's not here -- you kind of miss those guys' character and the atmosphere they bring," Brockers said. "But the big thing for me is to pick up the guys that's behind them and encourage them to do the right things. No let-offs. Don't worry about if you have more reps. That just gives you more of an opportunity to show the coaches what you have. That's what I've been trying to preach."
The Rams, off on Thursday, still don't know when Donald will report.
The two-time All-Pro didn't attend the organized team activities and has missed each of the team's five practices while angling for a restructured contract. Donald is widely considered the game's best interior lineman. He has performed to the level of the game's highest-paid defensive players but is owed less than $9 million in base salary the next two seasons.
It leaves a lot of ground to make up, and it probably means that these negotiations will drag on. The Rams have previously extended Quinn and Tavon Austin before their fourth seasons in the NFL, but those deals were done around September. The same was true for Houston's J.J. Watt, the only one of the five highest-paid defensive players to get an extension with two years left under team control.
McVay said the front office is "tirelessly working to find a solution" with Donald and stressed the importance of focusing on the players in camp. He was asked at what point Donald's absence would start to become a problem, in terms of his preparation for the season.
"Those special players kind of find a way," McVay said, "but I don't want to take anything away from the importance of practice. Every single day is an opportunity for us to get better, and it's very important, especially when you're getting into a new system, where you want your guys there. ... When that time comes where you start to worry about that -- it's hard to put an exact date on it. The thing we would relay is that we would love to have him here, and we're constantly trying to figure out that solution every single day."