Greg Hardy Legal Woes Make Kony Ealy More Valuable to Panthers' Pass Rush

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Greg Hardy Legal Woes Make Kony Ealy More Valuable to Panthers' Pass Rush
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Last May, many Carolina fans and defensive aficionados were salivating at the thought of the Panthers' defense fielding three talented pass-rushers on the field at once or just merely having one helluva rotation. Unfortunately, the fantasies of seeing opposing quarterbacks running for their lives on every other play may be just that—a fantasy. 

Greg Hardy was brought up on charges of communicating a verbal threat and domestic violence. On Tuesday, he was found guilty of those charges and sentenced to 18 months' probation, according to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer. Fortunately, the 60-day jail sentence was suspended; however, Hardy and his attorney will seek to appeal the ruling.

He could have his sentenced reduced if his appeal falls short. 

Guilty on 2 counts RT @josephperson: Greg Hardy sentence can be shortened with his completion of court-ordered program.

— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) July 16, 2014

While the NFL has yet to hand down any punishment of its own, the possibility of Hardy missing some time exists, and that does not bode well for the Carolina Panthers. Throw in the fact that backup defensive end Frank Alexander will miss four games for his own suspension and the amount of money that Hardy is due to earn under the franchise tag, and the situation indeed looks grim.

However, the acquisition of Kony Ealy in the NFL draft's second round looks more and more brilliant, if not well-timed. 

Drafting Kony Ealy looking better every day RT @BR_NFL: Graphic testimony emerges from the trial of Greg Hardy http://t.co/HNh6P7Q5av

— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 15, 2014

Carolina probably would have preferred to have eased Ealy into the defensive mix gradually. But that may no longer be the case, and he could undergo a baptism by fire when the season opens. Per CBSSports.com, Ealy graded out as a late first- to early second-round pick, and his fall to Carolina at 60th overall was unprecedented.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Rookie Kony Ealy works on his technique during OTAs.

Dave Gettleman didn't bat an eye, as he wasted no time selecting the talented defensive end out of Missouri. Ealy wrapped up his final year with the Tigers with 42 tackles and eight sacks. His career total topped out at 12.5 over three seasons

His numbers may not be eye-popping, but he knows how to get to the quarterback.

From an optimistic point of view (if one can really be taken from this situation), Ealy will gain a lot more experience and be on the field more often than most expected. A great situation that would see him be groomed into an NFL pass-rusher under the tutelage of both Hardy and Charles Johnson may not come to pass the way it was anticipated. Instead, Ealy will be groomed into the position, but more aggressively than originally planned.

Ealy is a versatile defensive player, and when he was drafted he figured to be another capable pass-rusher who could be inserted into Carolina's defense. He can play defensive tackle, and despite what happens to Hardy at the beginning of the season, fans should expect to see Ealy joining him and Johnson on the defensive front. He fits well in the Panthers' 4-3 defense and could be utilized as a rush linebacker in 3-4 schemes.

According to his player profile at NFL.com, Ealy can move like a linebacker, which bodes well for how he will fit within Carolina's aggressive play-calling. He knows how to get around blockers and find the quarterback. 

Of course, he will need to be molded by the coaching staff and address his weak areas, like beating double-teams, and he could benefit from some time in the weight room. Fortunately, these are issues that can be worked on during camp.

If he brings the same kind of impact he did while at Missouri, Ealy will make any potential Hardy absence easier to manage. After all, he was projected as a late first-round selection in last May's draft. The ceiling for the young man is very high. 

With any luck, Ealy will be primed and ready to go as a definitive starter on the defensive line in 2015.

Moving onto Hardy.... 

As mentioned earlier, he was hit with the franchise tag and signed it earlier this season. If he is suspended by the league, that $13.1 million figure becomes uncomfortably glaring. 

Will the 2014 season be Greg Hardy's last in Carolina?

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Granted, Gettleman did not see this coming. Yet he had the presence of mind to let his draft strategy work its magic; hence, Carolina has acquired the services of Ealy for the next few years. 

Hardy's legal issues notwithstanding, the Panthers were making moves and preparing for the next offseason. The 2015 campaign would be one that would see Carolina move forward without either Johnson or Hardy. 

Per Carolina's beat writer at ESPN.com, David Newton, the Panthers may have to let one of the two go after the 2014 season.

If Ealy is the pass-rushing "blue goose" -- Gettleman's term for a rare pass-rusher -- in the NFL that he was last season at Missouri, when he had 9.5 sacks and 14 quarterback pressures, the Panthers will have the leverage to let either Johnson or Hardy move on after this season.

In light of recent events, Hardy may have become expendable.

But it does not end there.

Teams may not want to pay Hardy or sign him to the kind of long-term contract he was thinking about earlier this year. Prior to Hardy's sentence, it was unlikely that the Pro Bowl defensive end and the Panthers were going to sign a long-term deal. The NFL has been careful to distance itself from potential troublesome players and does not want to invest a significant amount of cash into someone with violent tendencies. 

The documented cases involving former NFL tight end Aaron Hernandez and the recent domestic violence incident with Ray Rice prove that anything can happen. It should be noted that Rice's punishment is still pending, and it's unclear how many games he will miss due to suspension.

How will Kony Ealy fare in his first season?

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will be monitoring the situation closely, but any disciplinary action may not be taken until after the entire appeals process plays out. 

The upcoming season could be about who will be the better option to stay on the team for the foreseeable future, and Ealy and Johnson have the benefit of a clean slate. When the 2015 offseason comes around, the front office will have to decide between Hardy and Johnson in terms of who stays and who goes. Keeping both defensive ends would be ideal, but Gettleman does not want to tie up a lot of cash into one position when he has a talented young player like Ealy waiting in the wings.

Carolina's defense works best when it gets contributions from everyone—not just a solitary player. The expectations for the rookie should be modest, but keep in mind that the majority of Hardy's sacks were against teams that were weak up front (Atlanta and the New York Giants for example). For now, Ealy needs to enter training camp and prepare himself to step up into the starting role a little sooner than expected.

 

Stats provided courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com

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