By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Just over a year ago, Kony Ealy looked like he was blossoming before the eyes of football fans across the country in Super Bowl 50. After putting up an MVP-caliber performance in the Panthers’ Super Bowl loss to the Broncos, it looked like Carolina had unearthed a diamond in the rough in the second round of the 2014 draft.
Ealy, whom the Panthers selected just two picks before the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, followed up his breakout 2015 campaign with a disappointing 2016 season, playing all 16 games but starting just six and registering just five sacks. Ealy’s snap count took a tumble in the second half of the season and he finished with a poor 51.6 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
And so, Ealy ended up being sent to New England amid an exchange of draft picks between the Panthers and Panthers. The Patriots merely had to drop eight picks in April’s NFL Draft from No. 64 to No. 72 in order to get Ealy from the Panthers, who opted to extend 30-year-old Charles Johnson and re-up Mario Addison (83.6 grade on PFF) instead of keeping the 25-year-old Ealy.
Although Ealy is on track to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018, moving up eight spots in the draft is hardly an impressive trade haul. So what made the Panthers so eager to get Ealy off the team?
The Panthers struggled at times to find a spot on the defensive line for Ealy in 2016. It wasn’t until Week 7 that the coaching staff appeared to find a spot that worked and Week 8 that Ealy recorded his first sack of the season.
Off-field issues also appeared to pop up for Ealy in the year-plus since Super Bowl 50. He was named in a fraud lawsuit involving the alleged illegal sale of a dog, and continued to face questions about his maturity that led him to slide in the draft in the first place.
Ealy certainly didn’t come off as immature in his conference call with the New England media on Thursday. In fact, he already sounds like a perfect Patriot.
“I just look forward to just coming in, working hard, just doing my job and trying to help contribute. That’s all,” said Ealy.
When asked about whether getting traded so early in his career would provide any extra motivation, Ealy offered another perfectly Patriots-y answer.
“Everything else will take care of itself if I go out there and do what I’m supposed to do and just do my job,” said Ealy. “I’m not going to put any extra hype on it; anything more than just going out there and just proving myself on the gridiron.”
Coming off a massively disappointing 2016 season, Ealy certainly has plenty to prove in a Patriots uniform. That’s just the way Belichick likes it. It seems that the Patriots head coach believes he can get through to Ealy and get the most out of him for at least one season. Belichick has succeeded in the past with Patriots pickups who came to New England carrying off-field questions, so there’s reason to be confident that he can do with same with Ealy.
Perhaps more importantly, Belichick is almost certainly going to find the best way to use Ealy on the field – if he doesn’t know already. No matter what drawbacks Ealy might still have, Belichick knows the team could withstand them and that he can minimize those issues by winning games and putting him in a position to succeed.
The Panthers decided to dump what looked like a second-round gem. With a chance to dust it off, Belichick has a chance to once again make Ealy shine.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.