Name a player who played football at Missouri. No cheating, right now. Who did you come up with? Was it Michael Sam, the openly homosexual linebacker with the St. Louis Rams? Was it Chase Daniel, who led Missouri to some of their best performances and now plays backup in Kansas City? Was it Brad Smith, because you played the College Football video games from EA during the mid-2000s?
Unless you were a Panthers fan, it probably wasn’t Kony Ealy. Yet, Ealy might very well be one of the most important Panthers on the field in Spartanburg.
A Muted Beginning
The Panthers came into the 2014 draft and everyone knew they had to replace two cornerstones, Jordan Gross and Steve Smith. There was a fair amount of belief that these needs would be addressed in the first two rounds. After all, Dave Gettleman had come into the GM job last year and immediately drafted Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short when everyone knew we needed defensive tackles.
When Kelvin Benjamin was drafted in the first round, it seemed to set up that left tackle was coming in the second. I was trying to figure out how to say names like Kouandijo. Instead the Panthers selected Ealy out of the University of Missouri.
For a moment I mulled it over. I gave Gettleman the benefit of the doubt, because I knew he came from the New York Giants. The Giants had won two Super Bowls by stockpiling pass rushing talents. If you could defend Strahan, there was Umenyiora. If you could stop Tuck, there was Pierre-Paul. Sometimes it was Kiwanuka and sometimes it was ECU product Lindval Joseph.
The other thought that stuck in my head was the last Panthers team to reach the Super Bowl. It had two quality ends in Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, but there was also a pass rusher named Al Wallace who came in from time to time and was productive. I figured Ealy was going to be our Al Wallace. Oh how naïve I was.
A Hardy Summer
Then we witnessed the summer of Hardy. Greg Hardy proved himself to be a premier pass rusher last season and tied the team’s single season sack mark with 15. That’s half a sack better than Julius Peppers ever produced in a season.
Hardy became a free agent, or he would have except the Panthers franchised him with the franchise tag. The Panthers then proceeded to try and sign Hardy long term in a deal that is not done, and probably on hold because of Hardy’s other news making.
Hardy was charged with communicating threats and assault against Nicole Holder, who had been his girlfriend before breaking up at the Pro Bowl. He was found guilty. Hardy is appealing to have a jury trial and this legal process will be ongoing.
However, Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, does not usually let such processes take their course before stepping in with the League’s punishment. To think that Goodell will not do so is just daydreaming. Hardy will be fined and/or suspended. It would likely be a four game suspension.
Those of you thinking four games doesn’t mean much are missing the margins of difference between the playoffs and disappointment. Four games could be crucial.
Kony Ealy is the logical guy to fill the gap while Hardy’s situation gets settled. I think Gettleman knew that back at the draft. So what is he?
He is 6’4” and 273 lbs, which is good size for a rush end. He ran a 4.92 forty time at the NFL Combine, but his 6.83 cone shows that he is very quick off the end. Ealy could also conceivably get bigger and stronger given his frame. Which is good, given his 22 reps on the bench press at the Combine.
He possesses an arsenal of line moves and has quick hands to bat down balls. Like many linemen he is uncomfortable out in coverage, but it’s hard to know how much of that the Panthers are planning to do. He also needs to work his leverage at the point of attack.
Ealy collected nine and 1/2 sacks last year, but it’s important to remember that his teammate Michael Sam won SEC Defender of the Year honors. Why was Sam so successful? One reason is that he was rushing opposite from Ealy.
Whatever happens to Hardy, Ealy should be a good fit in the Panthers defense. He will be aided by teams focusing on Charles Johnson across the way. He will also benefit from the continued development of Short and Lotulelei in the middle. Ealy will have the chance to really surprise some people, if he will embrace it.