Ron Rivera has been waiting since last September for someone to step up and claim the starting defensive end job vacated by Greg Hardy.
It took nearly a year and a season-long, by-committee approach, but the Panthers coach thinks he’s found his man.
Rivera said second-year player Kony Ealy will be the starter at right defensive end Week 1 at Jacksonville.
“Unless he completely flops this weekend,” Rivera added. “But I don’t think so.”
Ealy, last year’s second-round pick from Missouri, had a first-quarter sack in each of the past two exhibitions.
These didn’t come in mop-up duty against E.J. Manuel. Ealy can add the Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill and some guy named Brady to his little black sack book, although let’s hope that’s not really a thing.
The sack on Tannehill came on a play that also took out Ealy’s chief competition for the starting job opposite left end Charles Johnson.
While Ealy was beating Miami tight end Dion Sims and knocking the ball away from Tannehill, Frank Alexander was going down like a shot on the other side with a season-ending Achilles tear.
Alexander, suspended 14 games last season for multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, was in the midst of a strong preseason.
But since taking Ealy with the 60th overall pick in 2014, the Panthers’ coaches have viewed the 6-4, 275-pounder as the player whose build, physical skills and upside most closely resembled Hardy’s.
That doesn’t mean Ealy’s going to have 15 sacks this year. And the Panthers still plan to use a rotation at end to keep their pass-rushers’ legs fresh.
But Rivera believes Ealy has raised his level of play the past two exhibitions, much like he did when he went on a season-ending tear last December when he had a sack in each of the final three regular-season games.
“He’s earned the opportunity,” Rivera said after Sunday’s practice. “And I’ve got to say I’ve been very pleased with him the last two weeks.”
Ealy’s quick first step and versatility are reminiscent of Hardy, a sixth-round pick who became a starter in his second season with the Panthers.
Like they did with Hardy, the defensive coaches often slide Ealy inside on obvious passing downs to try to create a mismatch with an interior offensive lineman.
Ealy also has lined up on the left side while Johnson’s been out with a calf injury, with speed-rusher Mario Addison taking over at right defensive end spot. Johnson missed the first three exhibitions, but participated in Sunday’s practice.
The Panthers never envisioned Addison, who’s much leaner than Ealy, as an every-down player. But Addison had 6 1/2 sacks last season and he’ll continue to have a prominent role in the Panthers’ rush packages.
Rivera also wants Wes Horton, who started 15 games last season after Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, to continue to fight for playing time.
But it was Ealy who emerged from the pack to grab a job that had been there for the taking for the better part of a year.
“He has taken the bull by the horns so far,” Rivera said of Ealy. “I want him to keep pushing, keep working , and I want the guys behind him to keep pushing him.”
Carolina released eight players Sunday ahead of Tuesday’s deadline to trim the roster to 75: