By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When the Patriots first acquired defensive end Kony Ealy from the Panthers, the trade appeared bigger than it really was. And as a result, Ealy has always been more expendable than it has seemed.
The Patriots traded their second-round pick to the Panthers for Ealy and the Panthers’ third-round pick in March, early on in the NFL’s free agency period. Amid the sugar-high that was the Patriots’ shockingly aggressive offseason, the trade felt more like the Patriots had shipped their second-rounder for Ealy, when in reality they simply dropped eight spots in the draft.
Bill Belichick, who eventually traded the Panthers’ pick to move down even further in the draft, essentially took a flyer on Ealy. Now, based on the early returns from the former Panther at Patriots training camp, he could be treated as such an acquisition once it comes time to cut the roster down.
But first, let’s rewind to the 2017 NFL Draft. The Patriots traded the Panthers’ third-rounder (No. 72) to the Titans for picks No. 83 and 124. They used the 83rd pick to select Youngstown State defensive end Derek Rivers, then flipped No. 124 along with their own third-rounder (No. 96) to the Lions to move up to No. 85, where they selected Troy offensive tackle Tony Garcia.
Interestingly enough, look who was giving Ealy trouble during practice on Friday.
To be fair, the Boston Sports Journal’s Greg Bedard credited Ealy with a quarterback pressure during drills, and he reportedly made a few plays while playing with the second team defense. But BSJ’s Christopher Price also listed Ealy as Patriots players who are on the bubble in light of his “underwhelming” start to training camp. Ealy has had some early absences and had a peculiar explanation when asked about them: “You have to ask Coach Bill. Me and him had something going on, or whatever.”
If Ealy can’t hack it here, and Belichick ends up cutting him, what did he really lose?
Fortunately, the Patriots appear to be getting something – well, more than a little something – out of rookie fourth-round pick Deatrich Wise out of Arkansas. Wise has gotten a notable amount of playing time with the starting defense and has impressed reporters covering camp so far.
In another very promising sign for Wise, as well as Rivers, they stayed late to put in some extra work with Trey Flowers.
The sudden retirement of Rob Ninkovich has opened up a prominent spot in the Patriots’ front-seven. It would be somewhat surprising if either Wise or Rivers could seize that kind of a role as rookies, which is why Ealy has been pointed to as the player with the best chance to take it. But the fourth-year lineman has yet to take his game to that level, while the kids are quickly passing him.
It’s still very early in camp and Belichick has until Sept. 2 to decide on a 53-man roster. Ealy still has plenty of time to do what it takes to get the role he may yet have the talent to earn. But if Ealy doesn’t start playing with more consistency, he could very well end up one of the team’s surprise cuts by the end of the preseason.
And considering how little the Patriots really gave up to get him, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise anyway.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.