CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers went for the best player available rather than need on the second day of the NFL draft.
The Panthers ignored more pressing needs at offensive tackle and cornerback, instead selecting defensive end Kony Ealy from Missouri in the second round and guard Trai Turner from LSU in the third round.
"You just can’t pass up good football players," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said Friday night.
Gettleman said he had a first-round grade on Ealy and was shocked that he lasted until the 60th pick overall.
The 6-foot-4, 273-pound Ealy started 25 games and had 14 sacks during his three seasons at Missouri. He had 43 tackles and 9.5 sacks last season.
The move is a bit of a surprise considering the Panthers had bigger needs at offensive tackle and cornerback in the second round and have two established starters at defensive end in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the team’s designated franchise player.
Carolina led the NFL with 60 sacks last season but Gettleman said before the draft if there was a "blue goose pass rusher" on the board he wouldn’t hesitate to draft him.
"You can never have enough defensive linemen," Gettleman said.
The Panthers have some young depth on the roster in Wes Horton and Mario Addison. However, another backup Frank Alexander was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of this season for violating the substance abuse policy.
Gettleman said Ealy reminds him of a young Osi Umenyiora because he move inside and play the three-technique on third downs.
"He has a lot of athletic ability and speed. But the thing that is unusual is he can play the three technique and battle with the big boys," Gettleman said.
Ealy said he’s happy to come to Carolina even though they have two established defensive ends. He said he’s eager to learn the tricks of the trade from two veterans.
"I’m not disappointed at all, because if they feel like they need me to play in the middle or come in and back somebody up that’s fine," Ealy said.
Ealy played defensive end in Missouri’s base defense, but moved inside on all third down situations.
Ealy said he’s been working with former Atlanta Falcons and Panthers defensive end Chuck Smith this offseason to improve his footwork and his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage.
"I try to utilize my speed, my strength and my power," Ealy said.
At some point Ealy could be a potential long-term replacement for Johnson or Hardy, two high-priced players who’ll count more than $29 million under this year’s salary cap.
Hardy is only under contract for this season at the franchise tag rate of $13.116 million.
Johnson signed a six-year $72 million contract in 2011 — the richest ever handed out to a Carolina player — and is due to cost $17.42 million under the salary cap next season. If the Panthers were to release Johnson next year the team would save about half of that money under the cap.
The 6-3, 310-pound Turner started 20 games for LSU during his three seasons there, including 13 last season. He had 115 career knockdowns.
An NFL.com analysis said Turner plays with good overall body mass and walls off defenders and generates movement in the run game.
"I’m physical and able to overpower defensive tackles and also able to finesse and get up to the second level of the defense," Turner said.
Said Gettleman: "He gives us the power that we are looking for and he can displace defensive linemen. And he pulls well, and that’s an important part of our guard spot."
The Panthers also hoping Turner provides some stability at guard.
Carolina lost four guards to season-ending injuries last season — Amini Silatolu, Garry Williams, Jeff Byers and 2013 fourth-round draft pick Edmund Kugbila. Complicating matters, veterans Geoff Hangartner and Byers retired this offseason and free agent Travelle Wharton isn’t expected to re-sign. Gettleman said Silatolu and Kugbila are recovering from injuries but should be back soon.