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Why the Kony Ealy Trade Makes No Sense for the Panthers

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Did Carolina just give up a fairly productive 25-year-old DE for a couple of magic beans?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers suddenly look like an Old Navy mannequin in winter – they just got fleeced! (Can I get a rim shot for that? Hello? Anyone?)

The Panthers traded defensive end Kony Ealy and the 72nd pick in the 2017 draft to the New England Patriots for the 64th pick in the 2017 draft.

The net effect is Carolina gave away a fairly productive 25-year-old player in a contract year playing in a position of need – defensive end – to move up just eight spots in the draft.

This was a bad move by GM Dave Gettleman and the Panthers. Here’s why.

Productivity

In his three seasons in Carolina, Ealy registered 76 combined tackles and 14 sacks. While these numbers aren’t going to get him into the Hall of Fame, this is actually solid production from a young defensive end.

Ealy’s 14.0 career sacks are second most among all 37 of the DEs, DLs, and DTs selected in the 2014 draft, trailing only Aaron Donald, per Pro-Football-Reference.

Name Pos. Team Career Sacks
1. Aaron Donald DT LAR 28.0
2-T. Kony Ealy DE CAR 14.0
2-T. Aaron Lynch DE SFO 14.0
4. Timmy Jernigan DT BAL 13.0
5. Stephon Tuitt DT PIT 11.5

While Kony was not looking like the Panthers long-term anchor at defensive end, he was capable of at least providing rotational-caliber production. If Ealy wasn’t productive enough, then why is Wes Horton suddenly the solution at DE? Statistically speaking, Kony has been better than Horton during each of their respective time in Carolina.

Name Seasons Games Tackles Sacks Forced Fumbles
Kony Ealy 3 47 76 14.0 6
Wes Horton 4 45 52 8.5 3

It seems odd that Ealy is suddenly expendable while Horton is now going to play a key role in the rotation. Kony has clearly been the more productive player.

Durability & Depth

Through three NFL seasons, Ealy played in 47 of a possible 48 regular season games. He led Carolina’s DEs in defensive snaps played in both 2015 (648 snaps) and in 2016 (623), per Football Outsiders. He’s durable. Durability is an asset in the NFL, especially for a Panthers defense which will be relying heavily on Charles Johnson who will turn 31 before the 2017 season and has missed 10 games in the last two years.

New arrival Julius Peppers is 37 and will likely play about 20 snaps per game. Mario Addison is more of a situational speed rusher on passing downs than an every down defensive end. Wes Horton appeared in just 19 of 32 games over the last two seasons, including a four-game PED suspension in 2015.

What if one of these DEs tears an ACL in training camp? What if someone pulls a hamstring or gets a concussion in Week 3? What if Horton gets suspended for another PED violation? Knock on wood none of these things happen, but they fact is they can.

Guys are going to get injured across the defensive line, that’s just life in the NFL, and Ealy could have at least provided competent depth if (or when) Carolina’s other DEs start getting banged up.

And if the Panthers end up being fortunate enough with both health and depth at DE going into the 2017 season that Ealy wouldn't have made the 53-man roster, they could have simply released him in September while incurring minimal dead money (more on that below).

But if anything does go wrong with Carolina's DEs between now and the start of the season, the Panthers very well may be wishing they still had Kony as an option for depth.

The Finances

Not only could Ealy have provided acceptable production and depth in 2017, he would have done so with a relatively small cap hit.

Ealy’s 2017 cap number was a modest $1.13 million as he entered the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. By trading him now, Carolina will eat $225k in dead money and free up $904k in cap space per Over The Cap.

Does Gettleman really think he can find a safer, more productive, plug-and-play free agent at a position of need than Kony Ealy for $900k? Good luck with that!

Moving Up Eight Spots is Meaningless

The main reason the Panthers made this trade, it appears, was to move up eight spots in the draft from 72nd to 64th.

The NFL Draft is nothing more than educated guesswork, and moving up eight spots at that point in the draft is virtually meaningless.

As I have previously written, since 2005 players drafted 1st through 10th overall are no more likely to be selected to two or more Pro Bowls than those drafted between 11th and 32nd in the first round.

It’s hard enough to predict which first round picks will become highly productive players, let alone guys who will be drafted in the sixties and seventies.

The odds are pretty high that whichever player Carolina wanted to draft at 64th would have still been there at 72nd. And even then, there is no guarantee whoever they draft with the 64th pick will pan out.

Even if the Panthers use an early pick in the 2017 draft on a defensive end, there is absolutely no guarantee he will be any more productive than Ealy has been.

Remember, Gettleman drafted Ealy 60th overall three years ago, and look at where we are now.

Hoping to See the Big Picture

Based on what we know today, I simply hate this trade when evaluating it in a vacuum.

The big wildcard in all of this, however, is how this trade will factor into Gettleman’s overarching plan for the rest of free agency and the upcoming draft.

I truly hope Gettleman can somehow parlay this move into something better than the package he just got from New England. This had better be part of some Gettleman-esque evil genius master plan that we just can’t see yet.

But until that grander plan is revealed, I would much rather have what Kony Ealy brings to the table than moving up eight spots in the draft and saving $900k in cap space.

A 25-year-old defensive end in a contract year who knows Carolina’s system and can produce 25-plus tackles and 5-plus sacks has tangible value.

Moving up eight spots in the unpredictable crapshoot that is the NFL draft just doesn’t.

Somebody call an Old Navy fashion consultant.

It looks like Carolina just got fleeced.