After grading the Carolina Panthers 2014 NFL Draft picks this week, the next logical question might be which of the Panthers’ six draft picks was the best selection. One could immediately point to their first overall pick, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. After all, Benjamin provides a huge, athletic weapon for quarterback Cam Newton, especially in the aftermath of losing Steve Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., and Brandon LaFell, three of the Panther’s four leading receivers from 2013.
Many experts thought better wide receivers remained on the draft board (e.g. Marqise Lee, selected 39th), however, and there were certainly higher-rated players available when the Panthers selected the 6-foot-5, 240-pound receiver from the 2014 FBS National Champion Florida State Seminoles, and several may have helped the Panthers immediately. Cornerbacks Bradley Roby (Ohio State, selected 31st) and LaMarcus Joyner (Florida State, selected 41st) and guard Xavier Su’a Filo (UCLA, selected 33rd) are examples of such players.
Many would argue that the Panthers’ second round selection was a better pick, and their case may just have gotten better. With the 60th overall pick in the second round Carolina took First Team All-SEC defensive end Kony Ealy of Missouri. Kony was second on the Tigers with eight sacks in 2013; only SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and Ealy’s teammate, Michael Sam had more (11.5). In fact, many pointed to Ealy’s presence on the line as a major key to Sam’s 2013 success.
Ealy could be called upon immediately and often in 2014 if All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy, who ran into trouble earlier this week, cannot resolve his legal issues and is disciplined by the league. As for Ealy, the 6-foot-4, 273-pound junior was projected as the best pass rushing defensive end besides talk-of-the-draft Jadeveon Clowney, and the third best pass rushing prospect in the draft besides Clowney and Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack.
Relatively poor results at the draft combine and concerns about Ealy’s consistency throughout his career at Missouri resulted in draft analysts dropping Ealy from first round projections to as late as the third round. I make the case here that Ealy was the Carolina Panthers best draft pick.
Ealy ran a 4.92 40-yard dash and posted the best 3-cone drill time at the combine for defensive linemen (6.83 seconds), but wasn’t as strong as teams would have liked. Scouts claimed he played inconsistently and lacked refined techniques, which sounds like a common theme for underclassmen with natural abilities. In my opinion many scout’s analysis was unfair, as Ealy improved every year with Missouri while facing the toughest competition in the country in SEC offensive lines nearly every week.
Ealy’s large, long frame and quickness will give him an advantage against many tackles, and his speed, quickness, athleticism and upside made him one of the more attractive defensive linemen in the draft. The Carolina Panthers don’t employ a 3-4 defense, so Ealy’s potential at outside linebacker is diminished, but his value adding depth to one of the best pass rushing lines in the NFL could be immeasurable, especially in the wake of Hardy’s aforementioned troubles. As Panther’s head coach Ron Rivera said before the draft this year, “You can never have too many pass rushers.”
As impressive a talent as Ealy is, the selection of him with the 60th overall pick is even more impressive considering Ealy’s early draft projections. After taking a wide receiver with their 28th pick the Panthers were most likely not taking another wide receiver, unless perhaps top prospects Davante Adams or Cory Latimer were still available (they were taken 53rd and 56th, respectively).
Other players that may have filled immediate roles taken right before Carolina’s second pick were Nebraska cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste (58th) and Ohio State offensive tackle Jake Mewhort (59th). Jean-Baptiste would have been a fine pick, perhaps contributing immediately, but the Panthers showed they had other corners on their mind drafting San Jose State’s Bene Benwikere, a player they had privately worked out and then traded up in the 5th round to get, giving up their 7th round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings to do so. Mewhort is not nearly the talent Ealy is and drafting him over Ealy would have been a mistake.
Players taken immediately after Ealy could be another story. Although not much of a case could be made for drafting talented Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson over Ealy (Robinson was selected 61st), two cases could certainly be made for offensive tackles Morgan Moses (Virginia) and Billy Turner (North Dakota State), taken with the 66th and 67th picks, respectively. Morgan, 6-foot-6, 314 pounds, and Turner, 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, are both huge, long, skilled tackles with the requisite toughness capable of competing for a starting job immediately.
Despite the Carolina Panther’s perceived needs on the offensive line, especially at left tackle after stalwart Jordan Gross’ retirement, I’ve consistently said the Panther’s line should be fine with the veteran players currently on their roster, and the need for athletic pass rushers could not be more evident in today’s NFL, especially considering Hardy’s recent issues. If “The Kraken” misses any significant time in 2014 the Ealy pick becomes considerably more valuable than anyone in Charlotte could have imagined, and likely, the best pick of the Panther’s 2014 draft. In my opinion it was the Carolina Panthers best draft pick regardless.
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