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Looking at Kony Ealy’s past to project his future

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What can the Cowboys get from Kony Ealy?

NFL: New York Jets at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys are bargain-hunters in free agency, and they hope they’ve found one in the signing of defensive end Kony Ealy. It certainly is a value one-year deal heavy on incentives.

The one-year deal signed by Kony Ealy with the Cowboys can be worth up to $2 million. He received a $200,000 signing bonus and $800,000 base salary and has up to $250,000 available in 46-man roster bonuses. For him to earn the max amount, he will have to record at least 12 sacks and play in 75 percent of the snaps in 2018.

If Kony Ealy puts together 12 sacks for the Cowboys, this will be one of the best deals ever. That’s unlikely of course, as Ealy has struggled in his four-year career. He only has 15 sacks in that time, with most of those coming when playing as a hand-down defensive end for the Carolina Panthers who drafted him the second round of the 2014 draft. As has been noted, the Cowboys were interested in Ealy then but worked a trade to get DeMarcus Lawrence instead. They also put in a claim last year when the Patriots cut him but the Jets were the team that got him.

Why was Ealy a second-round pick and why did the Cowboys want to draft him? OCC provided me with a little information about his college days. The Cool One recently ran a post about SPARQ scores and production ratio for edge rushers in the upcoming draft. I asked him to send me what he could on Ealy when he was coming out of college.

pSPARQ 121.8 (z-score ca. 0.8; NFL percentile ca. 77% - I had to estimate these). Production ratio: 1.31. That makes him a B-quadrant player; above average athleticism, below average production (due to a weaker sophomore season - his junior season, which was his final season, had a ratio of 1.57).

A B-quadrant player is one who has shown higher than average athleticism but lower production.

The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been below average. And while this doesn’t automatically invalidate them as potential prospects, it does raise questions. Teams need to understand why these guys didn’t have the kind of production other players, often with inferior athleticism, had. Was it the scheme they played in, the players they played next to, the opponents they played against, the role they were asked to play, or are they simply not very good football players?

Ealy famously had a huge game in the Panthers Super Bowl game at the end of the 2015 season with three sacks and an interception. But he was never able to do things like that consistently during his career. According to an article from Panters.com, the Cowboys may want to consider doing two things with Ealy, playing him on the left side behind DeMarcus Lawrence, and limiting his snap count. (Limiting his snap count shouldn’t be an issue behind Lawrence).

“He’s a dynamic pass rusher, and one of the things we noticed and that the coaches talked about during the bye week and last week was that most of his consistent plays and opportunities come from the left side,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “Charles (Johnson) is playing very well, and rotating Kony into that spot seemed to spark a little bit for him. Kony didn’t get a sack, but some of the pressures he had and some of his rush in terms of getting the quarterback off his spot, that’s what we’re looking for – and we’re looking for him to do is consistently.”

Ealy also might have been better because he played fewer snaps.

Ealy played just 23 snaps in the Super Bowl, when he recorded three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. The strip-sack and interception came from the right side, but obviously all of his big plays came when he was relatively fresh.

Interestingly, despite only having one sack in his year with the Jets as a stand-up OLB in a 3-4 scheme, his time there was generally praised by Jets observers. He ended with nine passes defensed on the season, that’s a lot passes deflected at the line of scrimmage. That’s a good news/bad news situation, if you knocking down passes it’s usually because you’re not getting to the quarterback, but at least you are making plays.

Here’s what Jason Garret had to say about Ealy.

“We’re excited about Kony,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We spent a lot of time on him coming out in the draft. We visited with him a lot, and we worked him out. He was one of those players we had targeted. At the time, we traded up for DeMarcus Lawrence and that worked out well for us. Kony went to Carolina and had a good career, very impactful in the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. We think he’s a good, young player with a lot of potential. We’re going to bring him in here.

“One of the things we try to do with our team is promote competition at every position. That really is the reason for the decisions that we made in the offseason, to create a competitive environment at every position across the position. We feel like that brings out the best in everybody.”

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Ealy played in the Jets’ 3-4 defense last season. But in his first three seasons, Ealy played defensive end in Carolina, so the Cowboys are confident he fits their Tampa 2 scheme.

“That’s always a challenge when you’re talking about players you get from other teams, players you get coming out in the draft,” Garrett said. “What their exposure has been, what system they’ve played in. We’re fortunate that Kony has played in a system similar to ours in Carolina. We saw him as a four-down type of player coming out of school. So we don’t feel like he has any physical limitations. He’s been exposed to some different systems now as a pro, so we feel like that will benefit him.”

We’ll see what the Cowboys do with Ealy, they potentially have lot of pieces at defensive end, especially if Randy Gregory makes a return. Whatever happens with Ealy, the Cowboys smartly negotiated a contract that won’t hurt the team if he turns into a bust.

That’s bargain-hunting in free agency the right way.