Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said last week he wouldn’t be afraid to draft a pass-rusher high in the draft if there was a good one available.
That’s exactly what he did Friday night, taking Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round over players who would fill more obvious positional needs.
The pick of Ealy gives the Panthers insurance if they aren’t able to get a long-term deal done with defensive end Greg Hardy, who was hit with the franchise-tag this year at $13.1 million, or if highly-paid end Charles Johnson’s production lags.
The Panthers have $29 million tied up in salary cap space this year between Hardy and Johnson, who combined for 49.5 sacks the past two seasons.
Ealy (6-4, 273) had 9.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and 14 quarterback pressures in his final season at Missouri. He also forced three fumbles and returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown against Indiana.
Ealy was among the 30 players invited to New York for the draft, and waited until the 60th pick to be selected. Ealy said he didn’t mind going to a team with two established pass rushers.
“I feel like if they need me to play in the middle or back up somebody, I can do that,” Ealy said. “I know I have a lot of catching up to do. I’m just working to earn my spot.”
Some scouts have questioned Ealy’s competitive fire and his consistency.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said he initially viewed Ealy as a first-round pick before watching more tape of Ealy that Mayock believed showed inconsistencies.
But Ealy said he’s competitive, and chalked up any perceived weaknesses to “technical things.”
“I hate losing. I hate for a guy to make a play on my side, on my watch,” said Ealy, adding he’s been working on his footwork and hand placement to “pop” offensive linemen high.
Ealy was a first-team All-SEC selection last season playing opposite of Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam, who was the SEC’s Co Defensive Player of the Year.
Ealy ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds at the combine, and bench-pressed 225 pounds 22 times.
Gettleman said last week he wanted to draft a wide receiver, a left tackle and a cornerback. The Panthers got their wideout in the first round when they picked Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin.
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