As we all know, there is a plethora of important decisions on the horizon and perhaps none is more significant than the potential contract negotiations with Greg "The Kraken" Hardy. Dave Gettleman has wisely held his cards close to his vest, but that hasn't stopped any of us from speculating what will happen. The bottom line is that the Panthers are going to have to pony up a pretty penny if they want to retain his services, and there are only two ways that this could be accomplished. The first would be to lock him up for a year by using the franchise tag. Of course, the second way to secure Hardy would be to give him a lucrative long term contract.
Realistically, the Panthers aren't in a position to break the bank because they are still limited by the lack of sufficient cap space. The previous regime's philosophy when faced with a similar type of conundrum was summed up in this way: When you have players who are at the top of their position, you can't let them go. In other words, you pay them whatever it takes to keep them in the fold. I can guarantee that Gettleman will not operate this way. After all, he's already shown a much more conservative approach when it comes to signing free agents and that won't change until he is able to remove himself from the shadows of our franchise quarterback's looming salary demands(among others).
From my perspective, the only way that Hardy remains a Panther long term is if he and his agent significantly overestimate his value in the open market. Good luck there. If recent history is any indicator of how much a young, top flight defensive end can expect to be offered in free agency, then we don't stand a chance. Nevertheless, as the questions continue to linger, let us turn our attention to a potential long term answer in the 2014 NFL Draft. I give you Kony Ealy.
First of all, Ealy is extremely versatile and was correspondingly used in many different capacities for the Tigers. The Missouri native most frequently made his living on the right side of the Tiger's four man front, where he faced the opposing team's best blindside protectors, and like Hardy, he was occasionally moved inside to use his quickness against the slower footed guards. Ealy was also periodically asked to drop back in coverage, which should give you an idea of how confident Missouri was about what he brings to the table from an athletic standpoint.
Ealy's biggest asset is his explosion off the line of scrimmage. Despite his large size, he has the unique flexibility it takes to dip his inside shoulder underneath the outstretched hands of offensive tackles while accelerating around the corner in pursuit of the quarterback. He also uses his agility to immediately fool tackles with a quick first step to the outside then countering back inside with a swim move across the face of the defender. Unfortunately, Ealy is largely a one trick pony as a pass rusher at this point.
Outside of his speed, there is a great deal left to be desired. For example, he has decent enough strength to power through blockers when bull rushing, but his pad level is oftentimes too high, which causes him to lose the leverage battle. Ealy was able to use his exceptional athleticism to overcome poor technique against lesser experienced competition, but he was exposed against some of the more elite college tackles. As you would expect, those fundamental flaws will only be magnified that much more in the NFL.
When it comes to stopping the run, I would say that Ealy is a work in progress. At times, he does a good job of forcing the runner back inside by sealing the edge. However, he also displayed a propensity to misdiagnose play calls and was caught inside far too often, leaving an open running lane on the outside. He'll have a hard time seeing the field if he doesn't learn how to correct these mistakes. On the flip side, Ealy does possess the functional strength necessary to hold the point of attack and as a result he does a nice job of making plays inside when offenses try to run up the middle.
As I pointed out in the beginning, Ealy will likely be a combine star. He will need to be in order give general managers something to think about other than his weaknesses. As bad as I may have portrayed him, he will probably still end up being selected in the first round. Pass rushers with his level of elite athleticism are rare talents and they usually don't last very long. I can only imagine that the Panthers have already been eyeing Ealy and will continue vetting him to the max. Frankly, I'm not so sure I would be enthused if we took him at 28. I hate to use the 'N' word, but defensive end just isn't at the top of our Needs list, and that is something I will continue to wholeheartedly embrace even if Hardy is allowed to walk. Some of the more reputable draft prognosticators may not agree, but I think there will be Better Players Available at 28.
What about you CSR? What do you think of Ealy and my latest mock draft. Before you do, check out Ealy's stats the last two seasons and watch his game film to get a better sense of what he brings to the table.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Ealy's overall package is how prevalent some of his game changing stats(see below) were on the road and against ranked teams. You can clearly see this in the data I compiled in the following chart.
Carolina Panthers 2014 Mock Draft 5.0
|1st||DE Kony Ealy||6' 5"||275||Missouri|
|2nd||WR Davante Adams||6' 2"||216||Fresno State|
|3rd||OT JaWuan James||6' 6"||315||Tennessee|
|4th||FS Kenny Ladler||6' 0"||200||Vanderbilt|
|5th||CB Walt Aikens||6' 1"||205||Liberty|
|6th||C/G Russell Bodine||6' 3"||310||UNC|
|7th||CB Aaron Colvin||6' 0"||186||Oklahoma|