Is Kony Ealy a Legitimate First-Round Talent?

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Is Kony Ealy a Legitimate First-Round Talent?
Tim Sharp/Associated Press

Spending time in the NFL’s green room and waiting, waiting … waiting, is no way to spend the first round of the NFL draft. No player wants to start his career with that kind of embarrassment in the spotlight.

That’s why making the decision to attend the draft live in New York City is a gut-wrenching call, not to be made unless you feel your name is going to be called on Day 1, and pretty early on at that.

Former Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy must be confident, because he’s one of the 30 players who will spend Thursday, May 8 at Radio City Music Hall. But confidence has never been an issue for Ealy.

On April 22, Ealy compared himself to probable first-overall pick, and fellow defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney. And he told Tom Pelissero of USA Today, he feels pretty good about the comparison:

I feel like I'm the best guy in this draft, period. And that's not a cocky thing — that's just a confidence thing. It's not just talk. It's been proven. My numbers show for it. My size and speed and agility show for it. What else can you want?

His 2013 numbers do show off nicely next to Clowney’s. At 14.5, Ealy had three tackles for loss more than Clowney, he had 6.5 more sacks (9.5), five more quarterback hurries (14) and two more forced fumbles (3).

2013 Stats: Kony Ealy vs. Jadeveon Clowney
Player Tackles TFL Sacks Forced Fumbles QB Hurries
Kony Ealy 43 14.5 9.5 3 14
Jadeveon Clowney 40 11.5 3 1 9

University of South Carolina, University of Missouri

At the combine, both had areas where they excelled. Clowney’s 4.53 was the fastest 40-yard dash time of any defensive lineman, according to the NFL. Clowney also posted a 124” broad jump, second place among defensive linemen. Ealy ran the three-cone drill in 6.83 seconds, according to the NFL. That was the fastest time among defensive linemen.

2014 Combine: Kony Ealy vs. Jadeveon Clowney
Player Ht/Wt 40-yard Dash Bench Vertical Jump Broad Jump 3-cone
Ealy 6'4"/273 4.84 22 31" 9'6" 6.83
Clowney 6'5"/266 4.51 21 37.5" 10'4" 7.27

NFL

While Clowney didn’t attempt to better any of his combine numbers, Ealy shaved time off his 40-yard dash and ran a 4.69, according to NFLDraftScout.com. He also increased his vertical and broad jumps.

While nothing that showed on film or in any pre-draft drill is going to push Ealy high enough in the draft to be taken ahead of Clowney, his late first-, early second-round draft stock has been slowly climbing over the last four to six weeks.

Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports, has Ealy going to the Arizona Cardinals at pick No. 20 in his latest mock draft. Rob Rang, also of CBS Sports, mocked Ealy to the San Francisco 49ers at No. 30. NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks picked Ealy to land with the New Orleans Saints at No. 27 in his latest mock draft.

But it was NFL.com writer Ian Rapoport who dispensed some knowledge Friday that could push Ealy even higher in the selection process that any of those mock drafts.

If Ealy can bulk up to around 290 pounds, while keeping his agility and freakishly fast change-of-direction ability, a move inside could make NFL general managers salivate.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett moved inside to rush the passer 36.2 percent of the time in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That move freed up other options for Seattle on the edge, and matched up Bennett against guards, not tackles on the offensive line.

A move inside for Ealy could also be more of a permanent option. Defensive tackles like Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions are redefining the way defenses can get pressure on the quarterback from the middle of the defensive line.

If Ealy can offer the promise of Bennett- or McCoy-like success rushing up the middle, instead of waiting until the end of Day 1 to hear his name called, teams like the New York Giants at No. 12, the St. Louis Rams at No. 13 and the Chicago Bears at No. 14 could now consider the former Missouri standout.

In fact, the idea of Ealy to the Rams at No. 13 (their second pick in the first round) should scare offensive coordinators.

The Rams already have two of the better pass-rushers in the league in Robert Quinn and Chris Long, who combined for 27.5 sacks in 2013 (19 for Quinn and 8.5 for Long). One of the reasons why St. Louis doesn’t need to look at Clowney at No. 2, or former Buffalo pass-rusher Khalil Mack is because they’re set on the edge.

But, if Ealy can get the same kind of pressure from the inside, while Quinn and Long continue their onslaught on opposing quarterbacks, no passer on the Rams’ schedule would be safe.

Want to know what Ealy’s peers feel about his skills?

Former Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews, who should be one of the first offensive linemen selected in the draft, told Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Ealy was his toughest opponent in 2013.

Anyone who watched the line-play in that game knows that Ealy was a handful for Matthews in the 28-21 Mizzou victory. With that in mind, Matthews’ answer was no surprise when asked about the toughest defensive ends he faced last season.

Matthews, in fact, mentioned only one name.

“I thought Kony Ealy was really good at Missouri,” Matthews said to Thomas. “Real aggressive. Big and strong. Mixed up his pass-rush moves real well.”

Rang compared Ealy to Quinn in his draft overview, raving about Ealy’s upside. Tim McManus of PhillyMag.com said Ealy compared his speed off the edge to 49ers pass-rusher Aldon Smith, and James Palmer of CSN Houston said Ealy likened himself to J.J. Watt.

While comparisons to Quinn, Smith and Watt are fantastically telling, that’s not what’s going to truly solidify Ealy’s first-round standing. Sure he may go late in the first round just on his merits and upside as an edge-rusher alone.

Where Ealy will truly earn his first-round status, and an extra few bucks, is if he can convince NFL teams he can move inside with ease, and that comparing him to Bennett and Suh is a real forecast.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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