Second-year defensive end Kony Ealy said he must “eat greedy” following the loss of fellow defensive end Frank Alexander for the season on Saturday night.
The term, commonly used in the Panthers’ locker room, brings the analogy of eating what’s in front of you and more around the table to the football field.
In Carolina’s case, the Panthers will hope Ealy never gets a full stomach.
The Panthers entered the preseason with no clear-cut favorite at the right defensive end position opposite Charles Johnson and left Spartanburg’s training camp with the picture even more muddled.
Alexander and Ealy were seemingly tied in a race that wasn’t exactly at break-neck pace to start before Alexander tore his Achilles in Saturday’s exhibition against the Dolphins.
“It’s the nature of the game,” Ealy said of Alexander’s injury after the 31-30 win against Miami. “Those things happen. You hate for it to happen, but when it does happen you just need people to step up. That’s it.
“Frank’s a really, really great player just going out there and competing against him every day. But it’s really not competing against each other, it’s more so yourself. The best man is going to play obviously but we make each other better.”
What’s concerning for Carolina is that Ealy didn’t win the position as much as he got it by default. The Panthers selected him in the second round of 2014’s draft to eventually be a starter, but he couldn’t replace Pro Bowler Greg Hardy in just his rookie season and hadn’t shown enough yet this preseason to earn the spot.
Outside of Alexander, Ealy’s main competition was an inconsistent Wes Horton and Mario Addison, a situational pass rusher who sees the field mostly on passing downs.
In the preseason opener against Buffalo last week, Ealy struggled on bootleg rushes by speedy quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He and the rest of the Panthers’ pass rush didn’t get much pressure on either Taylor or first-team quarterback Matt Cassel.
But Ealy improved against a better Dolphins team on Saturday. He forced a Ryan Tannehill fumble on a sack when he worked around a tight end to swipe at Tannehill from behind and knock the ball loose. Tannehill recovered the ball.
And then later in the first half, Ealy tracked down backup quarterback Matt Moore after working against a tight end and left tackle to push him out of bounds along the opposite sideline for a gain of 1 yard.
Ealy was also working Saturday without the other three defensive line starters. Johnson (calf), defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (foot) and tackle Kawann Short (back) all sat out, leaving Ealy as the only likely Week 1 starter in his 36 snaps.
Ealy got a number of those snaps lined up inside as a tackle, something he did some last year in the Panthers’ speed rush package known as “NASCAR.”
“One thing Kony we feel is really strong at, especially in third down situations, is the defensive tackle position, especially from the right side and so we moved him to that spot,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He did it last year for us. He has been doing it in camp and he has had a lot of success.”
Ealy, who finished last regular season with a sack in each of the last three games, knows how much the Panthers need that versatility. The team went most of last season with a defensive-end-by-committee approach.
The Panthers would like for Ealy to finally take over.
“They need me to be an all-down-end at every position,” Ealy said. “That’s what I’m working towards and that’s what I’m preparing for.”