Surprise pick Ealy could be starting early for Panthers

Kony Ealy, who had 9 1/2 sacks for Missouri last season, was taken by the Panthers with the 60th pick.

Jason DeCrow/AP

CHARLOTTE — When Kony Ealy’s name was announced in the second round for being drafted by the Carolina Panthers, there was no shortage of experts and fans alike that were stunned and bewildered at the selection of the defensive end out of Missouri.

After all, the Panthers already boast one of the best defensive front sevens in the NFL and they had glaring weaknesses in several positions, not the least of which was offensive tackle.

However, maybe it shouldn’t have come as a complete and utter shock. The warning signs were there.

"You guys can look at me like I’m crazy," Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman said prior to the draft. "But if there’s a blue goose pass rusher or a blue goose defensive tackle sitting there, I’m not going to be afraid."

What in the world is a "blue goose pass rusher?"

"A guy that can help right now," Gettleman said.

Now, nearly two weeks after the selection of Ealy, Gettleman is looking like a genius. There’s a real chance Ealy may be starting in Week 1.

Just days after Ealy, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 273 pounds, was drafted, Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy was charged with misdemeanor assault on a female and misdemeanor communicating threats. He spent 24 hours in jail before being released on $15,000 bond.

If convicted, Hardy, who had 15 sacks last season, could be suspended as many as two games.

If that weren’t enough, Hardy’s issues came roughly a week after key backup defensive end Frank Alexander was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

If Ealy is forced to start from the outset, he certainly doesn’t seem fazed by the thought of doing so.

"I’ve always thought about (starting)," Ealy said. "I don’t think anybody comes into this league and plans on not playing. Whether I start or not, that’s up to the coaches. But playing has always been a dream of mine.

"Whether I start or not, my mentality is still the same, and that’s just to get better each day out here in practice. But my mental (readiness) and physicality, nothing changes."

Another clue that Gettleman might draft a defensive end came in the salaries of Hardy and fellow star defensive end Charles Johnson.

Hardy had the franchise tag placed on him for this upcoming season and stands to make $13.1 million. Johnson, who is one of the highest paid defensive players in the league, signed a six-year, $72 million deal in 2011. He will make $17.42 million this season.

Many football experts believe there’s a very good chance one of them may not be a Panthers next season due to their extremely high price tags and the fact that the team needs some money so it can resign quarterback Cam Newton to a long-term deal.

With Johnson and Hardy being paid so much and being so good, most just assumed Ealy would be groomed for the future so that if one of the two star defensive ends is no longer with the team next year, Ealy would be ready to step in and play.

That is, most everybody but Ealy thought that. Even without all the troubles facing the Hardy and Alexander, the 22-year-old was already set on making his mark on the team and not being content as someone being groomed.

"With all due respect to the guys that are already in front of me, I definitely have to come in here and earn everything I get, but I have the opportunity to play and that’s what I’m shooting for," he said at rookie camp. "It’s the coaches’ decisions whether they put me down like that as far as me learning under them for a whole entire year, which I was going to do regardless if I was playing or not."

Before the draft, Ealy was touted as being a late first-round draft pick. He can play in the interior of the line or as a defensive end. He has a very good pass rush technique and is extremely athletic, as proven by the fact that he was a star basketball player at New Madrid High in Missouri, where he has won numerous all-district, all-region and all-conference honors.

That’s why so many "draft experts" feel as though Carolina got great value by drafting him with the 60th overall pick.

Ealy, who had 9 1/2 sacks for the Tigers last season, feels that way, too.

"(My greatest asset) is a combination of all kinds," he said. "I feel like I can be put in any position to attack and get to the quarterback and to get to the ball, period. I feel like that’s my greatest advantage.

Unlike so many players who have a grudge against the teams that passed on them, Ealy doesn’t sweat it. Just having his name called in the draft is the only significance to him.

"My thoughts were God intended for me to be here," he said. "If he wanted me to go in the first round, I would have gone in the first round. That doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that I get to live my dreams and I’ve been dreaming about this since the fourth grade. They’ve given me the opportunity and now it’s up to me with what I do with the opportunity.

"Your mentality has to be at a level of competitiveness. You’re going to have guys out there in their 30s and guys that are in their early 20s. That doesn’t matter. What matters is how hard you go, what you can put out there and how you can help the team. I’m excited to have this opportunity, but at the same time you have to act like you’ve been there before and I think I do a great job of handling that."