Patriots land defensive end Kony Ealy from Carolina
The Patriots have injected their first dose of youth into their pass rush this offseason.
They acquired defensive end Kony Ealy and a third-round pick from the Panthers in exchange for their second-round pick. Through the exchange of draft selections, the Patriots dropped from the 64th pick to No. 72, so they gave up very little in the trade.
Ealy was a second-round pick out of Missouri in 2014 and hasn’t put it all together yet for a full season. However, Ealy racked up three sacks, a forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception against the Broncos in a dominant Super Bowl 50 performance. Ealy likely would have been the Super Bowl MVP if the Panthers won the game.
The 25-year-old just hasn’t gone wire to wire yet. He had four sacks as a rookie in 2014 and five in each of the past two seasons. He has the tools to be a big-time pass rusher at 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, but it hasn’t happened to this point. His age has to be intriguing from that perspective, as his raw skills still have time to mature.
Ealy’s development, or lack thereof, had been a prominent storyline with the Panthers over the past two seasons. His Super Bowl showing was hailed as a long-awaited breakout for an edge rusher with the potential for a bright future, but Ealy didn’t built on it during the 2016 season. It’s possible an uptick in disciplined coaching could benefit him, as well as the chance to play among a far more talented group of defensive players.
The Patriots have worked diligently over the past several weeks to get younger on the defensive edge in time for next season, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility they’d add three young pieces, with Ealy as the first chip. Trey Flowers was dominant at times in his second season and is shaping up to be their featured pass rusher in 2017, but the Patriots also like to kick him inside in sub packages. Rob Ninkovich, 33, is getting toward the end of his career, too.
They weren’t planning to re-sign Chris Long before the soon-to-be 32-year-old announced his decision to try to sign elsewhere, and Jabaal Sheard bolted yesterday for a three-year, $25.5 million deal with the Colts, according to a source. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin could also play on the edge in certain situations.
The draft class is developing a reputation for the best group of pass rushers in years, so the Patriots could target defensive ends in the early-to-middle rounds. They’ve already paid close attention to the group in the pre-draft preparation process, and there could be upwards of 20 edge rushers off the board in the first three rounds.
As for Ealy, Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will attempt to find what the Panthers couldn’t. Obviously, the Panthers had given up on Ealy, evidenced by the minimal exchange rate, and his fate was likely sealed yesterday when they re-signed organizational favorite Julius Peppers.
Ealy is also in the final year of his contract, so this is a major opportunity for him to take a major step forward in his career. He is only set to earn about $900,000 in 2017, so a spike in production could yield a major payday during the next offseason.
And if Ealy doesn’t pan out?
It’d be hard to fault the Patriots for dropping eight spots in the draft in order to give it a whirl. They’re going to get younger one way or another, and this was the initial step in that process.