CHARLOTTE — Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said last week he wouldn’t be afraid to draft a pass-rusher high in the draft if there was a good one available.
That’s exactly what he did Friday night, taking Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round over players who would fill more obvious positional needs.
And while fans and draft experts hoped the Panthers would take an offensive tackle high in the draft, Gettleman went with a guard in the third round – LSU’s Trai Turner, a 6-foot-3, 310-pounder who impressed scouts at the combine when he ran the 40 in 4.93 seconds.
Gettleman said last week he wanted to draft a wide receiver, a left tackle and a cornerback. The Panthers got their wideout in the first round when they picked Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin.
Ealy might not qualify as the “blue goose” Gettleman coveted, but he’ll serve as an insurance policy if the Panthers don’t get a long-term deal done with defensive end Greg Hardy or if highly paid end Charles Johnson’s production lags.
Ealy (6-4, 273) had 9.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and 14 quarterback pressures in his final season at Missouri. He also forced three fumbles and returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown against Indiana.
Gettleman said Ealy was too good of a player to pass up.
“We had a first-round value on Kony Ealy. He’s got a lot of potential. When I watched him on tape, I felt like I was looking at a young (Falcons and former Giants defensive end) Osi Umenyiora. He’s got that kind of athletic ability,” Gettleman said, referring to the Falcons defensive end, who was with the Giants when Gettleman was in New York.
Ealy was among the 30 players invited to New York for the draft, and waited until the 60th pick to be selected. Ealy said he didn’t mind going to a team with two established pass rushers.
“I feel like if they need me to play in the middle or back up somebody, I can do that,” Ealy said. “I know I have a lot of catching up to do. I’m just working to earn my spot.”
The Panthers put the franchise tag on Hardy at a cost of $13.1 million this year, and there have been no indications the two sides are close to an extension.
Carolina has $29 million in salary cap space committed to Hardy and Johnson, who combined for 49.5 sacks the past two seasons. Hardy tied Kevin Greene’s franchise record with 15 sacks last season.
Ealy was a first-team All-SEC selection last season playing opposite of Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam, who was the SEC’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Taylor joins a guard rotation that was hit hard by injuries in 2013, when four starters or regulars ended the season on injured reserve. The injuries prompted the Panthers to sign veteran Travelle Wharton (USC), who started at left guard most of the season but is leaning toward retirement.
This is the third consecutive year the Panthers picked a guard during the first four rounds. They took Amini Silatolu in the second round in 2012 and Edmund Kugbila in the fourth in 2013.