The conclusion of the 2014 NFL Draft left a lot of Carolina Panthers fans in awe. Just the way the first two rounds went left fans wondering what the front office of the organization was actually thinking in terms of the team’s future.
Quickly to address the first round, I felt that the most NFL-ready wide receiver, aside from top ten selections Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, was Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. One thing that Cooks seemed to outshine all other receivers in was route running, a primary staple that contributes to an NFL receiver’s success.
Playing in the Pac-12, we know that Cooks had to play against some of the nation’s top defenses without a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback over center. Despite this team-related ailment, Brandin Cooks sliced up the defenses of Oregon and Stanford with relative ease, proving his skill before, during, and after the catch. New Orleans and Drew Brees were probably popping champagne when they realized Cooks was going to fall just enough for them to capitalize on a trade with Arizona that left the organization with just one less draft pick (a fifth rounder) and the slot/outside wide receiver of the future (a Darren Sproles 2.0 if you will with his speed).
I could definitely understand how this could frustrate Panther fans, especially considering the loss of Steve Smith who they already owed half of his yearly salary to whether he actually played in Charlotte or not. Although I think Brandin Cooks would have fit the Panthers offensive scheme best, I think that Kelvin Benjamin was a solid first round pick because just as GM Dave Gettleman said, “you can’t teach 6’5” 230 lbs.”
Then we move into the real story regarding defensive end Kony Ealy out of Missouri.
First of all, I had this guy going in the first round anywhere from twelfth to the New York Giants to 27 landing himself in New Orleans. He’s a stocky defensive lineman with speed over the outer edge and strength to help him bang in the middle on third downs. So when Mr. Gettleman said that they were simply picking the best available player on the board when their second round pick came along, I would not have argued.
However, despite Greg Hardy’s recent troubles with law enforcement, the front seven was never debated as a need to be addressed in the draft for the Panthers. They desperately needed offensive line help and despite the claims that there was a huge drop off in talent after Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan, and Zack Martin, Morgan Moses was an adequate choice who could have immediately bolstered the offensive line.
Now the selection of Kony Ealy works two ways – one good and one very, very bad.
The good is that it adds depth to the defensive line to help out Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, and even Star Lotulelei. The most important part of Ealy’s selection is the cap flexibility that the Carolina front office has been longing for the past few seasons after the establishment of the new collective bargaining agreement which has immensely cut back on the amount of money that players can actually earn in their contracts.
This means that if Ealy proves to be a stud defensive lineman, the Panthers can afford to potentially shed Charles Johnson’s disgustingly large contract or Greg Hardy’s soon-to-be nice payday from the cap, allowing the Panthers to give Kony Ealy a more prominent role on the line with a cash incentive and giving the front office more money to go out and sign another reliable receiving target for Cam Newton.
That’s the good.
Now for the bad, or perhaps very, very bad.
Adding Kony Ealy to the defensive line is like the Milwaukee Bucks or Utah Jazz and there inability to avoid acquiring more big men for the team – eventually there is so much cluster that you have to let the players who you actually like move on to potentially bigger and better things (just ask Al Jefferson and his 3-year/$43 million contract with the now Charlotte Hornets). The Panthers now have a clogged defensive line consisting of reliable second stringers, a valuable rookie, and proven veterans, all of whom require some sort of playing time and money.
At this point, the Carolina Panthers front office is beyond thankful that the new CBA does not allow any player, especially defensive linemen to receive paydays like Charles Johnson got a few years back when former GM Marty Hurney outrageously signed him to a 6-year/$76 million contract. This set a horrible precedent because Hardy will most likely demand big bucks to equate with his counterpart on the opposite side of the line. And while Hardy’s legal troubles might have cost him some interest from other teams and a few million dollars, his talent will prove that he deserves as much as any other defensive end in the league to get paid and paid well.
Now let’s just say Hardy takes a slight hometown discount and comes back, Johnson restructures slightly to account for less of the cap space, and Ealy pans out. Then when Ealy’s rookie contract is up, he will probably demand similar payments to that of Hardy and Johnson. This is all under the assumption that Star Lotulelei essentially sleeps under a rock and does not care about earning the same amount of money as the rest of the Panthers front seven.
Then the Panthers are in purgatory. They have a defensive cast that essentially will operate around two to four of the existing defensive stars, consistently rotating pieces around throughout the league to see if they fit. This is where team chemistry fails and teams fail to play football deep into the winter months.
In short, the Panthers have a lot of issues and a busy off-season ahead of them. As it seems, their best bet is to hope (and hope very much) that Ealy pans out big so that Charles Johnson could either restructure to keep his job or depart for a team without as strong of a defense as there is in Carolina.
If they plan on letting Hardy leave, then why they decided to franchise tag him to pay $13 million for his services this season alone (one in which they will probably only win eight games given the new-found competitiveness of the division) truly baffles me. Fans can only hope that Mr. Gettleman has some big tricks up his sleeve that can sort these massively mind-numbing questions out.
Written by Alex Floch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I am currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Growing up in a sports family, I have formed a distinct love for the industry. I enjoy writing about sports in my free time and hope to one day be able to pursue it as a career.