D efensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are the two biggest reasons the Panthers led the league in sacks last season. They’re two of the biggest reasons Carolina can possibly contend for a playoff spot again. They’re also two of the biggest reasons for the team’s inflexible finances.
The duo is scheduled to make more than $29 million in 2014, taking up nearly 22 percent of Carolina’s cap space. Yes, they’re the only pair in the NFL with double-digit sacks in each of the last two seasons, but spending nearly a quarter of cap space on two guys, neither of which are a quarterback, isn’t sustainable.
That’s why the Panthers’ second-round selection Friday night makes much more sense than it may look on the surface.
It seems like they didn’t really need Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy. But perhaps one day, folks will start believing general manager Dave Gettleman, who continuously promises to do exactly what he did when the Panthers went on the clock with the 60th overall pick.
“Kony Ealy was the highest-rated guy on the board at that point. It was the same as last year when we took KK (Kawann Short) in the second round. KK was a first-round value for us and you just can’t pass up good football players,” Gettleman said late Friday night. “I think the 2013 season showed that for a quarterback it’s very difficult to throw the ball when you’re on your back and it’s a big part of it. He was too good a value to pass up.”
Even after using their first-round pick on receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers could use another wideout. They certainly have a need for an offensive tackle or a cornerback. But Gettleman, who has also repeated a belief to keep a team’s strengths strong, wasn’t going to pass on a player whom the Panthers had given a first-round value.
“I was shocked that he was there,” Gettleman said. “You cannot have too many pass rushers. You can’t. It’s impossible.”
Ealy, who racked up 9.5 sacks and 14 quarterback pressures as a junior last season, was likely shocked as well. Of the 30 players who went to New York for the draft, he was one of the few remaining waiting for his name to be called.
Perhaps landing on a team with two established ends isn’t an ideal situation for a guy expecting to be a first-round pick, but Ealy claimed he’ll be patient.
“I feel like if they need me to play in the middle or back up somebody, I can do that,” Ealy said on a conference call with Carolina media. “I know I have a lot of catching up to do. I’m just working to earn my spot.”
One of the reasons the Panthers were interested in Ealy is he doesn’t have just one spot. He’s big enough and strong enough to slide inside on passing downs, flexibility Johnson and Hardy have provided in recent seasons.
But as good as they’ve been, the replacement for one of them was likely drafted Friday night. Which one that could be is unclear.
Johnson is scheduled to make $16.42 million this year and $17.42 million in 2015.
Hardy, who was given the franchise tag, will earn $13.1 million, and a long-term deal before the season remains unlikely.
Many haven’t understood many of the moves Gettleman has made the last couple months. You can add drafting a defensive end to the list.
But this offseason hasn’t just been about 2014 for the Panthers. Instead, Ealy is another possible key piece of what they’re hoping to build in 2014 and beyond.
RE: On how excited he is to be drafted by the Panthers
Extremely excited and truly blessed.
RE: On when he got a feel that the Panthers were interested in him
We had a great workout with Coach Eric Washington. I definitely had a feel for the things they do up there with their defensive line. I just couldn’t wait to be a part of that.
RE: On if he is excited to join the Panthers defensive line unit
Extremely. I can’t wait to work with guys like (Greg) Hardy and (Star) Lotulelei.
RE: On what he hopes to learn from the defensive line group
The tricks of the trade, more so how to get to the ball using your athleticism and putting that together. That’s why they have such a special group down there. Feeding off of their energy, learning as much as I can and going out there to help them make plays.
RE: On waiting to be drafted in the green room
It was long and hard but definitely a blessing. I have a circle around me with family, friends, agent, media people, everyone. Everyone definitely did a great job to make sure I was able to withstand it.
RE: On if he was disappointed coming to a team with two established defensive ends
Not at all. I feel like if they need me to play in the middle or they need me to come back up someone I can do that. It’s definitely not a disappointment at all. I know I have to get it done. There’s a lot of catching up to do, just work and earn my spot.
RE: On the biggest adjustment he needs to make
Learning the plays. I’ve played football all my life and I was always able to adapt to it. When I learned the plays I went out there and I did great. Just being able to go out there and learn the plays from the older guys who are already there. I feel like after I do that to elevate my game, that’s how you become closer and stronger as a group. That’s why they are so successful.
RE: On his strength as a pass rusher
Just being able to utilize my length, my speed and my power. In the middle if I’m playing three technique, being able to take on a double team or a single block, working a guard or a center. On the
outside, being able to utilize my speed and power, trying to get in the quarterback’s head. Playing with
the quarterbacks mind.
RE: On what he needs to improve on fundamentally
Fundamentally, I’ve been working with Chuck Smith and Bob Whitfield on my footwork and correcting my hand placement. Stop popping up so high and being more explosive off the line. That goes a long way.
RE: On teams who questioned his consistency or competitive fire
I don’t think it’s really a question of my consistency or competitiveness. I’m competitive, period. I hate losing and I hate for a guy to make a play on my side or on my watch. It’s nothing of that sort; it’s more so technical things, which will help to elevate my game. I’m going to continue to do that and when I get there, learn from the older guys who are already there and established. Just become a contributor and an impact player.
RE: On the origin of his name
My mom let my cousin name me. My cousin was a little older than I was. I don’t know where she came up with the name, I never really asked her. I was supposed to be a junior after my dad.
RE: On if he has heard Kony 2014 before
Yes, I see it on my twitter in hashtags. I think it’s funny, I laugh at it. At least I’m able to keep someone laughing and happy.
RE: On the jewelry he wore on the podium
They do a great job here at the NFL draft. They have a thing set up here where all the athletes can pick out different merchandise. If they like it and they can get it and if not, they can bring it back. They are kind of advertising jewelry and that’s what I did. I kind of like to look good so, it’s nice, I picked it out and that’s that.
RE: On if he is going to keep any of the jewelry
I’m not going to keep any of it. It was kind of for show, to look good.
RE: On who is in his draft picture that was posted on Instagram
My family. My girlfriend, my dad, my brother, my agent, my sister, her husband and my little niece.
RE: On if he has seen Greg Hardy while in New York
To be honest with you it has been a hectic and busy week for me. I haven’t had time to sit down with anyone until today. I saw a lot of the NFL veterans and Hall of Famers here. I got a chance to sit down and talk to a couple of them.
RE: On if he played inside while at Missouri
I played inside on every third down because we had two other pass rushers to come off. Our line was really good; Markus Golden and Shane Ray are going to be real good for Missouri this year coming up. We utilize them, put me and Michael Sam out there and we send four and drop everyone else.
RE: On if the Panthers have told him how they plan to use him
They feel like they can utilize me in the middle and I can come in and play end. Like I said, whatever they have for me to do, or what they want me to tryout to do, that’s what I’m going to do.
RE: On playing in the middle
Probably situational sub-packages, but I have to wait until I get there and sit down to talk to Coach Washington to see what he wants me to do.
RE: On his thoughts regarding the nickname ‘The Kraken’ when referring to Hardy
He’s definitely in the right position to be able to say that, the guy is a beast. I watch him and how he plays the game. He plays with so much passion and he gets after the quarterback. He is a great guy to learn from.
Dave Gettleman: I’m excited. We had another good day and we got better. We did. We got two young, talented kids. We had a first-round value on Kony Ealy. He’s got a lot of potential. When I watched him on tape, I felt like I was looking at a young Osi Umenyiora. He’s got that kind of athletic ability. Osi was a little raw like he is, but like I said, he’s got a lot of athletic ability, a lot of speed. The thing that he does that’s unusual is he can go inside and sub and play the three-technique and he’s a legitimate pass rusher in there. It’s not too big for him; he’s not afraid of the big boys. Of course, they can’t grab him half of the time. He was an outstanding value at that spot. We worked him out. We went through the whole process with him and we feel very, very good about drafting him.
RE: If today was more about drafting the best player available
DG: It really was. Kony Ealy was the highest-rated guy on the board at that point. It was the same as last year when we took KK (Kawann Short) in the second round. KK was a first-round value for us and you just can’t pass up good football players and I think this year, the 2013 season, showed that for a quarterback it’s very difficult to throw the ball when you’re on your back and it’s a big part of it. He was too good a value to pass up. I’ve said it to you before, when you reach you get in trouble and that’s the way I feel; I’ve seen it.
RE: Why Ealy was available at No. 60
DG: Beats the heck out of me. I have no idea. I don’t know. Evaluating players, obviously, nobody’s perfect because if everybody was perfect every draft pick would make it. For sure every first, second and third rounder would make it and have a lengthy career barring injury.
RE: If Ealy was a player the team would have considered if the wide receiver and a tackle were gone
DG: In the first round? We had a first round value on him, yes. In the first round and the second round, we took the highest-rated guy on our board and with Trai Turner, he was on the same line as the other guys that we were talking about. There was all solid values for us.
RE: How much Gettleman values Ealy’s ability to play inside and out
DG: It’s big. When you get a defensive end that can legitimately come inside at the three-technique and rush the passer and handle himself in there with the hog mollies that’s a high value. Justin Tuck, his first two years that’s where he lived. He lived inside because of (Michael) Strahan and Osi and those guys. He lived inside and he was a huge factor in that 2007 Super Bowl win.
RE: Media questions about Ealy’s consistency and if Gettleman saw issues with consistency and competitiveness
DG: No. Competitiveness, absolutely not. Absolutely not. One of the things that happens is that it’s really easy to kill a guy. It takes no talent to say that he’s can’t do this, he can’t do this, he can’t do this. Again, it’s what can he do? When I take notes I’ve got right and left. On the right side I put all the things he can do. On the left side, all the things he can’t do. And the can’t do side you look at and you say what can you fix? And that’s part of Ron (Rivera) and his staff fixing certain things. Now there’s certain things you can’t fix. If a guy’s stiff, he’s stiff. You can put him in a vat of WD-40 and it’s not going to work. If a guy’s not instinctive, he’s not instinctive; you’re not fixing it. But if a guy needs to improve his hand use, whatever skill it is for that particular position, if it’s something that’s coachable and we feel he’s got the intelligence then you have to take a hard look at the guy. Because the college game is so different from our game what we really focus on is grading what we call critical factors. And not so much into the specifics, is he competitive? Is he strong? Is he explosive? Is he instinctive? Does he play fast? What kind of an athlete is he for his position? We talk about those six things a lot and if a guy grades high in those critical factors and on the assumption he’s instinctive and on the assumption he can learn, hey, you could have a heck of a player on your hands.
RE: If Ealy is building for the future
DG: Again, it’s just my philosophy. You cannot have too many pass rushers. You can’t. It’s impossible.
RE: On what Ron Rivera likes about Ealy
RR: The best thing I like most about Kony Ealy is his versatility. He plays both inside and outside, he can play left side and right side and rush equally as well. One of the things we do with our defensive ends is we do move them around and play them as three techniques as well. I like his initial get off, I think he has a wing span; he knocked a bunch of balls down. When you watch him on tape the thing you really like about him is he attacks the edge very quickly. He had a really good three-cone time, which showed he has the ability to change direction and bend the corner. You know that’s there as far as being an edge rusher.
RE: On who is a surprise in this draft, someone who fell that you didn’t expect to
DG: Kony Ealy. It’s the bottom of the second round. Again, I’m not saying I’m the savant, the guru, I know everything and I’m right all the time. For me, with my experience, I was shocked that he was there. I understand why KK (Kawann Short) fell last year. We were the 14th pick of the second round, we were up there. Kony really surprised me, it really did.
[/tab][tab]KONY EALY: Coach Washington talked to me on the phone. He was one of the guys talking to me, first thing he said to me, “You remember our conversation?”I said, “Yes, sir.”He said, “Welcome to be a Panther.” I just kind of like teared up there. You know, it’s a blessing, man. Q. What does it mean to go opposite side of town, adding more to a great team?EALY: It means the world to me, man. And Cam Newton is a great athlete. I feel like he’s going to do more great things here in the future.Definitely happy to be on the same side, to be on the same team as him. That’s a big guy trying to tackle and running downhill. Just go there and try to learn from Greg Hardy and the older guys and Coach Washington and everything he has for me to learn and just kind of elevate my game. Q. Did the Panthers indicate to you that they were surprised you were around to be picked?EALY: Yeah, a little bit. I guess they expected me to go a lot earlier. But you know, it doesn’t matter when you go. Only thing that matters is you go and what you did when you had the opportunity; and I plan on wrecking havoc (ph). Q. What kind of players are the Panthers getting?EALY: They are going to get a hell of a player. Man, they are getting a player that wants to win. They are getting a player that wants to learn right now and feed off his teammates, and also for them to be able to do the same thing.Like I said earlier in this draft and the whole process, I didn’t feel like I was behind any defensive end coming into this process and I don’t think anybody should feel that way, definitely. But they are going to get a hell of a player, a player that wants to win. I want to win the Super Bowl. I feel like you win a Super Bowl, a lot of everything else will be taken care of itself. Q. You mentioned the conversation with Washington. What was that conversation like in the past? What did he tell you that you talked about again tonight?EALY: Well, we had a great meeting whenever he came up there. We had a great workout. I definitely liked the terminology that he has in play with their defense, and I feel like we was going to do great things. We really hit it off, and kind of reiterated the same thing tonight when he called. Q. What’s it like going to one of the best defenses in the NFL, knowing that you’re going to be able to just eat up quarterbacks?EALY: It feels great and I love hitting quarterbacks, too. So all those Panther fans out there, just get ready. Q. You’re also in a division with some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Can you talk about that?EALY: Definitely, just being in the NFL, period. You definitely have to realize and respect that. It’s a great honor for me to be able to be in this position. Just can’t wait to get started. Q. You mentioned the other day that the Rams and Cowboys were two teams that had shown a lot of interest in you. When they came up for picks, did your ears perk up a little bit?EALY: Yeah, a little bit. Just because we had a lot of, you know, conversations going back and forth and I definitely thought they were going to get me and kind of passed up, but you know, maybe it wasn’t meant to be. God has something different intended for me. Q. You’ve seen the history of guys who have been drafted in the second round and ended up being better than the first round ‑‑EALY: I’ve been telling different players throughout this whole process, players that I knew, that they knew I was going to the draft or whatever. I said, look, the only thing, the only difference that first round, second round, third round is money. That’s the only difference.I feel like if you go in there and you work just as hard as the starters, or just as hard as the first- round guys, you’re going to get a great opportunity to play. Just utilize the opportunity and make the best of it. Whatever you put in is what you’re going to get out and that’s what I’ve always been told.[/tab][/tabs][share title=”Share this Post” facebook=”true” twitter=”true” google_plus=”true” linkedin=”true” pinterest=”true” reddit=”true” email=”true”]