Kony Ealy came to Mizzou after eliciting offers from other major-conference programs, including Nebraska, Arkansas and Mississippi. After a redshirt freshman year, he played in 12 games as a sophomore, including the first start of his career, against RGIII and Baylor. 2012 served as his breakout season; Ealy logged 10 tackles for loss among his 37 stops, and proceeded to follow that up with a 43-tackle (14.5 TFL), 9.5-sacks, 3 forced-fumble senior campaign that netted him All-SEC honors and the SEC's Co-Defensive Player of the Year Award (Ealy split the award with teammate Michael Sam).
Scouts are intrigued by Ealy's size, incredible length (he is 6'4" with 34.5 inch arms), quick-twitch burst, ability to dip and bend around the edge (he was the top performer among defensive ends in the 3-cone drill at the Combine, with a 6.83 mark, the same number logged by LeSean McCoy in 2009), active hands (which result in strip sacks) and scheme versatility (many think he could play 3-4 OLB).
These traits are on display on the tape. Draft Breakdown has video of seven of Ealy's games, with six of them from 2013. Some highlights include SEC tilts against Florida and Georgia, a game at Indiana, during which Ealy returned an interception 49 yards for a score, and the Cotton Bowl game against Oklahoma State, when Ealy capped off his career with six tackles and two sacks in a 41-31 victory.
What does our panel of scouting types think of Ealy as a prospect? You don't have far to go to find out!
Rob Rang (CBSSports.com): 3rd-ranked DE; 34th overall
Strengths: Ealy's athleticism jumps off the tape. Operating mostly at RDE for the Tigers, Ealy shows good initial quickness off the snap to force right tackles into respecting his speed rush, but saw time all over the defensive line and even as a stand-up linebacker. He has a quick spin move back to the inside to complement his speed and has developing pass-rush technique, including an over-arm swim and a power slap. Perhaps best of all, Ealy possesses the flexibility to turn the corner efficiently and closes quickly, demonstrating the ability to rip the ball free from the quarterback with a powerful chop or with an explosive collision. Impressive straight-line acceleration for a man of his size. Good recognition to get his hands into passing lanes when he can't get to the quarterback. Times his leap well and long arms and good hand-eye coordination. Undeniable upside.
Weaknesses: Ealy is prone to coming off the snap too high, making himself vulnerable to cut blocks and is a more effective pass rusher than run defender, at this time. While possessing the burst and balance to attack off the edge out of the two-point stance, Ealy looks uncomfortable dropping back into coverage and offers minimal experience in this area. Has been surrounded by a lot of talent at Missouri and may struggle early in the NFL if expected to be the star...
Compares To: Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams - Considering that Quinn finished second in the NFL with 19 sacks in 2013, he's a tough comparison for any rookie but there is no denying Ealy's upside. He boasts the length, burst and developing technique that every scout is looking for off the edge. If he continues to develop his game, Pro Bowls are in his future.
Gary Horton (ESPN.com): 2nd-ranked DE; 31st overall
Pass Rush Skills: Quick-twitch athlete with more suddenness and explosiveness than frame indicates. Quick and strong hands. Effective club to swim move and can go either way with it. Flashes above average speed to power and can knock back offensive tackles. Good closing burst. Big hitter that can jar ball loose. Can streamline pass rush moves. Gets too high and looks mechanical on some twists.
Versus the Run: Active run defender that's at best on the move. Strong and long enough to set the edge when keeps pads down. Good awareness and locates ball quickly. Good range for size. Makes plays in pursuit (front-side and backside). Good pop as a tackler.
Versatility: LDE starter that moves inside to rush on obvious pass downs. Improved ability to counter and get off blocks when kicked inside. Quickness gives interior offensive linemen problems. Average athlete in space but could be a 3-4 OLB conversion candidate in some multiple schemes. Shows good instincts and range when asked to drop into underneath coverage.
Instincts/ Motor: Chases run and passer. Will occasionally throw in the towel too early when he's neutralized in phone booth. Flashes an edge and doesn't back down when challenged but would still like to see more physicality.
Intangibles: Son of Willie Ealy & Nettie Jones. Locker room leader. Matured and developed into team player. Has a good relationship with father who was tough on him growing up. Grew up in tough area of St. Louis before father moved family when Ealy was in middle school. Sister Sierra has chromosomal deformities that affect her appearance, speech and motor skills. Missed time during 2013 spring practice due to family issues. Has called former Missouri players Aldon Smith and Sheldon Richardson for advice.
Tony Pauline (draftinsider.net): 2nd-ranked DE; 12th overall
Positive: Two-year starter who finished with 43 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, and 9.5 sacks last season. Developing defensive line prospect with a tremendous amount of upside potential. Terrific athlete. Quickly changes direction and runs down ball carriers in lateral pursuit. Forceful up the field, defeats blocks, and knocks bigger tackles back off the ball. Agile, plays with excellent pad level, and can bend off the edge. Shows a good amount of pass rushing skill. Effectively uses his hands to protect himself or knocks opponents away with violent punch. Easily changes direction, displays fluid movement skills, and makes plays to every angle.
Negative: Occasionally slow locating the ball. Lacks great bulk. Will be overwhelmed at the point if he doesn't get a running start.
Analysis: Ealy made major strides the past two seasons and is an athletic pass rusher improving as a run defender. Though not yet a complete player, his game is moving north and Ealy offers possibilities in a variety of defensive schemes at the next level.
Nolan Nawrocki (NFL.com): 4th-ranked DE; 40thoverall
Strengths: Is long and has a big, projectable frame with room for added bulk. Quick off the snap. Loose athlete -- moves like a linebacker. Plays on his feet. Runs the arc -- dips his shoulder, bends the corner and gets home. Closes fast on the quarterback. Can spin off blocks, redirect and chase the quarterback. Crashes down the line and ranges in pursuit. Flexible and coordinated to zone-drop. Has upside.
Weaknesses: Needs more time in the weight room. Still developing positional instincts and awareness to blocking schemes. Pad level is too high. Exposes his frame and gets locked up. Does not convert speed to power. Unrefined hand use, counters and pass-rush moves. Needs to learn to use his length advantageously. Does not provide enough resistance at the point of attack. Crumbles vs. double teams.
Draft Projection: Rounds 2-3
Bottom Line: Big, athletic, ascending, pass-rush talent with the size, burst and flexibility to pressurize the edge as a right defensive end. Is not a finished product, particularly as a run defender, but should only become more disruptive as his strength, technique and savvy catch up with his natural physical ability. Could also draw looks as a 3-4 rush linebacker.
These reports are in agreement regarding several key features of Ealy's game that will transfer to NFL success: his overall athleticism; quick-twitch get-off at the snap; ability to "run the arc" - i.e., to dip his shoulder to get around left tackles without losing speed; and closing burst. So, why do so many of them have him slotted at "the bend" - the area at the end of the first and beginning of the second round? Two reasons that I can divine: first, that he's not as big and powerful as a classic 280-pound defensive end; second, that he gets too upright at the snap and, as a result exposes too much of his body to opposing linemen. Because of this, I have him as a "first round - trade back" option on my "little board."
However, I'm not sure the Cowboys would agree. I suspect that neither of the above objections poses a problem for the team, who will take speed and "twitchiness" over raw power and believe that Rod Marinelli can coach the tendency to get too high out of the player. By extension, Coach Rod is just the guy to help Ealy realize the immense potential that each of these evaluators point to. Furthermore, reports out of Valley Ranch are that Will McClay is a big fan of Ealy's, and McClay is the guy who currently holds sway over Jerry Jones' opinion. So, if other, better options such as Anthony Barr and Aaron Donald are off the board, it would not surprise me at all if they have Ealy graded highly enough to justify selecting him at pick number sixteen.
Later today: Now that you've seen how the national draftniks rate Ealy, stay tuned for our in-house scout, Joey Ickes, who will post a detailed, supplementary film study of the former Tiger to add to what you already know.
Tomorrow: Oregon State DE Scott Crichton