Defensive end Kony Ealy is scheduled to answer questions from reporters around 12 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Gillette Stadium, so it’s timely to ask the question: What can the New England Patriots expect out of him in 2017?
Let’s break it down:
Playing time. Spending the last three years in Carolina, Ealy played 35.2 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie, followed by 58.7 percent and 58.4 percent, respectively, in each of the last two seasons. His career high for snaps played was 621 in 2015. The Patriots adopt a rotation with their defensive ends, and need to replace a significant play-time percentage total with the departures of Chris Long (65.1) and Jabaal Sheard (55.6). That’s right in Ealy’s range, based on the last two seasons, so assuming his integration into the team’s system goes well, he should be a big part of filling the voids of Long and Sheard.
Alignment.In Carolina’s 4-3 scheme, Ealy played both right and left end, although the 2016 season saw a notable shift in how he was deployed. Frank Cyrpiano of ESPN Stats & Information relayed that 2016 was the only time Ealy aligned more on the right side (54.3 percent) compared to the left (45.7). In 2015, Ealy was mostly on the left side (70.2), and that’s also where he saw the majority of his snaps as a rookie (60.5), with the coaching staff ultimately coming to the conclusion that was where the majority of his big plays came from. While the Patriots like their ends to have flexibility to play both spots in their multiple scheme, the projected starter on the right side is Trey Flowers, who is arguably the team’s top pass-rusher. So Ealy currently projects to see more time on the left side, where Rob Ninkovich returns as the starter.
Interior possibility. When the Patriots signed Sheard in 2015, they weren’t sure if he could be effective as an interior pass rusher because he had never really done that during the first four years of his NFL career in Cleveland. So they experimented with it and Sheard was utilized effectively in that role at times (e.g. Super Bowl LI), which is important when considering the high volume of snaps the Patriots play in their sub packages (approximately 80 percent last year). So while the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Ealy is mostly an end-of-the-line player, it would be consistent with the approach of the coaching staff to see if he might have added value to rush inside at times. That will be a storyline to monitor in training camp and preseason.