The New England Patriots’ most glaring need heading into the 2017 offseason was at a position with a shallow, aging and unexciting group of unrestricted free agents.
The Patriots had just three edge rushers on their roster when the 2017 NFL league year began, and one of them, Geneo Grissom, was cut out of training camp last September and then played just 11 defensive snaps after being signed off the practice squad. The Patriots needed new blood with Chris Long not returning and Jabaal Sheard on his way out of town.
So, instead of wasting heaps of money on an old or unexciting unrestricted free agent, the Patriots took a creative approach in adding a veteran defensive end. They would send their 2017 second-round draft pick to the Carolina Panthers for Kony Ealy and a third-round selection.
So, what does Ealy add?
DEFENSIVE END KONY EALY
6-foot-4, 275 pounds
25 years old
4.69-second 40-yard dash, 1.69-second 10-yard split, 32-inch vertical leap, 10-feet broad jump, 4.45-second short shuttle, 6.83-second 3-cone drill
2016 stats: 32 tackles, five sacks, three passes defended, one interception, two forced fumbles
Outside of Super Bowl 50, Ealy had a mostly unremarkable three-year start to his career since the Panthers took him in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft. In Super Bowl 50, Ealy appeared to (much like most Patriots fans) have a personal vendetta against Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, recording three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. He likely would have added Super Bowl MVP to his résumé if that game had turned out differently.
Ealy has 13 sacks in the last two years, including playoffs, all of which came from the edge. Ealy might have been misused during his time with the Panthers. We’ll find out next season, Ealy’s last under his rookie contract, because Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn’t make a habit out of misusing players, except for maybe Tim Tebow. Belichick should have used Tebow as a tight end, Patriots Pro Shop cashier, punt shagger, blocking sled, maybe just as like a coffee table or something, motivational speaker or outfielder rather than a quarterback.
At 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, Ealy has the size to play a role more versatile than simply lining up on the edge, which was almost exclusively his position in Carolina. He was believed to be a strong interior rusher in college at Missouri, though he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prove that at the pro level.
The Patriots frequently went small on third down in 2016. They used four defensive ends in obvious passing downs, lining up two on the edge and two on the inside. One of those interior rushers next season will almost certainly be future star Trey Flowers, and the other very well could be Ealy. Rob Ninkovich likely will rush from the outside, and the Patriots still need to add one or two more defensive ends before training camp.
The Patriots also used Long as a five-technique defensive end in their base defense last season. Ealy seems well-equipped for that role.
Ealy also could start at left defensive end, opposite Flowers on the right side, on early downs, though he’ll compete with Ninkovich for that role.
Ninkovich has been the better run defender throughout his NFL career, so he’ll likely enter the offseason as the odds-on favorite to win the role. Ninkovich is 33 years old, however, which is grizzled when speaking in NFL terms. Ealy, given his age, has more upside.
Ealy certainly could break out next season, though it would be wise to temper expectations. He will contribute, though, and he will be used more creatively in New England than Carolina.
Thumbnail photo via Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports Images