National pundits and analysts all have a common concern about the Carolina Panthers--the offensive line. The obvious question remains, can Michael Oher be serviceable at left tackle? While this question clearly looms, there is another major concern that flies somewhat under the radar--the defensive line. Who, if anyone, can replace Greg Hardy's production? While some believe that defensive end by committee can fill Hardy's shoes, I believe Carolina has the next star defensive end already on the roster. File this as my first bold prediction on C3--Kony Ealy will have a breakout year for the Carolina Panthers in 2015. He is young, experienced, talented, and most of all versatile. He along with Oher, are the key components to the Panther's success or failure this year. I would argue that the play of Ealy is even more crucial than that of Oher. We had bad tackle play last year, and still made the playoffs. The read option masked a lot of the O-Line's weaknesses. The defense, however, doesn't have that luxury. Carolina's scheme requires the front four to pressure opposing QBs for the defense to work. Seriously, do we really want to rely on Grandpa Harper to make plays?
Ealy has a chance to step into a larger role , and I think he takes that next step.
When Ealy was at Missouri, he was touted as one of the nation's top defensive end prospects. He had a solid college career and helped a Mizzou defense rank near the top of the country in yards and points allowed. Mizzou didn't play any slouches in the SEC either, which many consider the minor leagues of the NFL. He was redshirted his freshman year. Eventually serving a back-up role in his sophomore year, he recorded 13 tackles, 1 sack, and 3 tackles for loss in his first 13 games. For his efforts, he made the 2011 SEC all freshman team. His junior season was his breakout season (10 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and even 7 pass breakups). He was named to the All SEC First Team Defense. The Tigers ended the year defeating Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, and Ealy forewent his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Drafted by the Panthers with the 60th overall pick, like most of Gettleman's suprise picks, he was immediately questioned and dismissed as a mistake.
The last thing the Panthers needed was a defensive end; they did have Greg Hardy! Boy, does Gettleman look like a genius now. After Hardy was suspended, the defense struggled mightily. Opposing offenses no longer had to worry about Johnson and Hardy, which allowed them to focus the double teams on Johnson. Ealy saw limited rotation, and by all accounts his first few weeks were a struggle. He finally came around, and started to rotate in more for Wes Horton, and I don't think it's a coincidence that while his production went up, the Panthers started to play better. He finished the year with 12 tackles, 4 sacks, and 1 forced fumble.
The most impressive thing about his rookie year was his versatility. He is the only player the Panthers have that can play all four positions on the line. He recorded one sack as a defensive tackle. This makes him difficult to block. He has the speed to be an end, and the strength to play on the inside as well. He compliments Charles Johnson perfectly, just as Greg Hardy once did before he decided to show his gun collection off.
My fellow C3 writer Grant Hughes wrote a great review article of Ealy's rookie season and a Bleacher Report writer describing his first year as 'near disastrous'. This serves to prove that the national media officially hates the Panthers. It's made even more ironic considering that Kony Ealy made their first team all rookie defense. I hate it for our players, even if you receive first team honors you somehow had a horrible season if you play in Carolina. Ealy's versatility should be a boon to this team's defense for years to come, and it's a big reason they are my favorites to win the south again. Matt Ryan and Drew Brees will have restraining orders on Kony Ealy by years end.
As the preseason draws nearer, the beat writers and analysts will start making their predictions. The most common will most likely be Seattle is unbeatable, or the Colts with their bizarrely near retirement age roster and their allegedly all time great QB will also be making a Super Bowl push. As for the Panthers, well they couldn't possibly compete with Atlanta, who had a wonderful need based draft. They also couldn't compete with New Orleans, who traded half their team and got an IOU in return. I am in no way an expert, but I do have a prediction. Carolina has a great chance to win the south, and Kony Ealy is the breakout player in the South this year. His versatility will cause nightmares for opposing offenses, and if we are lucky, prove that the Panthers are a great defense even without gun enthusiast Greg Hardy.
Thanks for reading,
Andy 'the barkeep' Massey