Versatility separated Ealy, Sam for Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One-hundred and eighty-eight players were selected in last weekend's NFL draft between Kony Ealy in the second round and fellow Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in the seventh.

The gap could have been bigger if Ealy had gone in the first round as the Carolina Panthers, who got him with the No. 60 overall pick, had him graded.

Or, it could have been smaller had Sam, picked by the St. Louis Rams at No. 249, gone in the fifth or sixth round where many teams had him graded.

Statistically, it doesn't add up. Sam, the first openly gay player selected in the draft, led the SEC in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18) compared to 9.5 and 14.5 for Ealy. Sam was the co-defensive player of the year in arguably the country's toughest conference.

So why was there so much disparity between the players in the draft? For the Panthers, it came down to two things. They viewed Ealy as more valuable because he could play end as well as tackle. At 6-foot-4 and 273 pounds, he was ideally suited to fit into their 4-3 scheme.

They never seriously considered Sam because they saw him strictly as an end in a 3-4 scheme.

"Obviously, the more a guy can do the more value he has," general manager Dave Gettleman said Friday as the Panthers began a two-day minicamp. "What Kony has is the ability to be a 4-3 defensive end, and he's got the ability to go inside and sub, which is huge."

Gettleman then drew on what he called a "blast from the past" in former Carolina head coach John Fox, who was the defensive coordinator with the New York Giants while Gettleman was there.

"John Fox taught me this when I was with the Giants," Gettleman said. "One of the biggest mismatches in the game is those very real sudden, quick guys inside against the hog mollies [his name for big linemen]. They struggle to get their gloves on them.

"Kony goes in there, and he's very comfortable. He played inside against big guys in the SEC, and it was never too big for him. Someone made the argument he was just as productive in the 3-technique as he was inside. That's a huge value. Sam doesn't have that. Sam is more of a 3-4 outside guy."

Ealy is comfortable inside. When I asked him where he was best, he didn't hesitate.

"I'm comfortable anywhere they put me on the defensive line," he said.

Ealy's value might increase even more if Pro Bowl end Greg Hardy's legal issues -- he was arrested and charged Tuesday in a domestic violence incident -- result in any kind of suspension this season or impacts the team's plans to sign him to a long-term deal.

Ealy does many of the same things Hardy does as far as playing inside and outside, although Gettleman characterized Hardy as more of a power rusher and Ealy as more of an athletic rusher.

Regardless, the Panthers believe Ealy can have an immediate impact.

"He's going to be in the rotation really quick," Gettleman said. "We really vetted him out."