Carolina Panthers

Super Bowl standout Kony Ealy ended up on waivers 18 months later. What went wrong?

After getting three sacks, this interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in Super Bowl 50, Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy (94) never lived up to the promise he showed against the Broncos that night.
After getting three sacks, this interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in Super Bowl 50, Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy (94) never lived up to the promise he showed against the Broncos that night. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Back in March, Super Bowl 50 standout Kony Ealy’s trade from the Panthers to the Patriots barely registered with the Carolina fan base. Timing was key.

That same day, the Panthers also brought back Julius Peppers, one of its best all-time rushers, signed Pro-Bowler Mike Adams and failed to keep a lid on a deal that brought veteran Captain Munnerlyn back to the Carolinas.

Five months later, the Patriots cutting Ealy – the once-promising edge rusher who might have been Super Bowl 50 MVP if the Panthers had beaten Denver – was overshadowed by bigger news once again. Ealy’s cut got just four paragraphs at the end of the Associated Press article about star wide receiver Julian Edelman missing the season wth a torn ACL.

On Feb. 7, 2016, Ealy was on top of the world, perhaps the Panthers’ next big star on defense. Some 18 months later, the Panthers’ 2014 second-round draft pick had been rejected by two franchises – traded for draft position in March and then left on the scrap heap in August. What went wrong?

In Charlotte, Ealy’s attitude helped cut his playing time before the Super Bowl. In a 2016 article, the Observer’s Joseph Person wrote that Panthers ex-GM Dave Gettleman had compared Ealy to cornerback Josh Norman, who had irked coach Ron Rivera early in his career with his “freelancing ways and stubborn demeanor. ... But implicit in Gettleman’s comment was the fact that he thought Ealy – like Norman – had the talent to become a Pro Bowl-caliber player if he figured things out.”

After getting three sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the Super Bowl, Ealy never lived up to the promise he showed against the Broncos. He had just five sacks the following season and continued to frustrate coaches with his stubborn streak. The Panthers were loaded with edge rushers, rendering Easly expendable.

Gettleman couldn’t resist going moving up eight spots in the draft. “To me, it’s gold,” Gettleman said.

In New England, it appears that Ealy, 25, simply wasn’t a good fit.

“I do think he was making progress and getting better and was really working hard. It’s just one of those things that didn’t work out or wasn’t going to work out,” New England coach Bill Belichick told reporters. “It’s nobody’s fault.”

The Patriots had hoped that Ealy could help fill the gap left by the retirement of defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who ranked fifth all-time in sacks for New England.

ESPN’s Mike Reiss writes that Ealy may have sealed his fate by losing containment on back-to-back plays late in Friday’s preseason win against Detroit. Ealy didn’t even get into the game until the third quarter.

Belichick also had held Ealy out the final stretch of spring practices and the first day of training camp.

In the Panthers-Patriots trade, Ealy and a third-round pick (72nd overall) went to New England in exchange for a second-round pick (No. 64 overall) that the Panthers used to draft offensive lineman Taylor Moton. The Western Michigan product is listed as the backup at right tackle on the current Panthers depth chart and received praise from Rivera for an impressive camp.

The Patriots ended up swapping that third-round pick in another draft-position maneuver that eventually landed them defensive end Derek Rivers. Rivers is likely already done for the season after tearing his ACL last week. Though just a third-rounder, Rivers, from Youngstown State, was the Patriots’ first pick in this year’s draft.

What’s next for Ealy? Belichick said he expects him to land a shot with another club, and that the timing of the cut makes that more likely.

“It gives him an opportunity ... to hopefully create a better opportunity for himself. I think he deserved that,” Belichick said. “He did everything we asked him to do. It just didn’t work out for either one of us like we hoped it would.”

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