Is Kony Ealy ready to start for Panthers?

The Carolina Panthers invested a second round pick on Kony Ealy in the 2014 NFL Draft. Now it’s time to see if he’s ready to live up to it.

More than any other position on the field, defensive end has seen the most turnover for Carolina this offseason.

Jared Allen announced his retirement a couple of weeks ago, and long-time veteran Charles Johnson is not the player he used to be, even at a bargain $3 million price. That means the Panthers will have to find some new blood either via free agency or the draft. It also means that Kony Ealy is almost guaranteed to start next year.

The questions is this: is he ready for the big time?

Ealy finished the 2015 season very strong. In the end he finished with five sacks and three forced fumbles despite seeing limited playing time. He also came up huge both in the NFC Championship and in Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos. Ealy tallied three sacks, two tackles for a loss, an interception and the final strip/sack of Peyton Manning’s career:

One game is not enough to judge a player by though, even if it is the Super Bowl.

In his two years with the Panthers Kony Ealy has demonstrated a consistent ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but there’s a lot more to the position than that.

As you might expect, Pro Football Focus gave Ealy a solid pass-rushing grade for last season. His 75.5 grade ranks pretty much in the middle of the pack for defensive ends who saw significant snap counts. If Ealy’s game has a weakness, it’s his run defense, and his PFF grade reflects that. At 44.2 he is ranked ahead of only a handful of DEs, all of whom are unlikely to stick around in the NFL for very long.

With Johnson and Allen playing ahead of him, this wasn’t a big deal as Carolina could save Ealy for obvious passing situation. However, if he becomes a three-down starter it could become a problem.

Ron Rivera’s coaching philosophy takes its cue from his mentor, Mike Ditka. That means it’s all about running the ball well and stopping the run. Falling off on one side of the defensive line in that regard is unacceptable, even if it means an upgrade for pass rushing.

Sean McDermott should feel comfortable starting Ealy next season, but the Panthers need to add more depth at the position just in case it doesn’t work out.