CHARLOTTE (AP) — The Carolina Panthers went for the best player available rather than need on the second day of the NFL draft.
The Panthers ignored more pressing needs at wide receiver and offensive tackle, instead selecting defensive end Kony Ealy from Missouri in the second round and guard Trai Turner in the third round.
The 6-foot-4, 273-pound Ealy started 25 games and had 14 sacks during his three seasons at Missouri. As a senior he had 43 tackles and 9.5 sacks.
The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks last season and have two established starting defensive ends in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the team’s designated franchise player.
That didn’t matter to general manager Dave Gettleman.
Gettleman said before the draft if there was a “blue goose pass rusher” on the board he wouldn’t hesitate to draft him.
The move is a bit of a surprise considering the Panthers had bigger needs at offensive tackle and cornerback in the second round.
Ealy is considered a multi-talented defensive end with a reputation for being an effective pass rusher and playing stout against the run at the point of attack.
He also has enough speed to drop into coverage if needed.
A teammate of Michael Sam, Ealy became a full-time starter in 2012 and went on to earn All-Southeastern Conference first-team honors this past season. Ealy finished 2013 strong, registering six tackles, two sacks and one pass deflection against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
The Panthers have some young depth on the roster in Wes Horton and Mario Addison. However, another backup Frank Alexander was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of this season for violating the substance abuse policy.
Ealy said he wasn’t disappointed that he’s coming to a team with two established defensive ends. In fact, quite the opposite, saying it will give him a chance to learn the tricks of the trade.
“I’m not disappointed at all, because if they feel like they need me to play in the middle or come in and back somebody up that’s fine,” Ealy said.
Ealy played defensive end in Missouri’s base defense, but moved inside on third down situations. He expects to do the same in Carolina.
Ealy said he’s been working with former Atlanta Falcons and Panthers defensive end Chuck Smith this offseason to improve his footwork and his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage.
“I try to utilize my speed, my strength and my power,” Ealy said.
At some point Ealy could be a potential long-term replacement for Johnson or Hardy, two high-priced players who’ll count more than $29 million under this year’s salary cap.
Hardy is only under contract for this season at the franchise tag rate of $13.116 million.
Johnson signed a six-year $72 million contract in 2011 — the richest ever handed out to a Carolina player — and is due to cost $17.42 million under the salary cap next season. If the Panthers were to release Johnson next year the team would save about half of that money under the cap.
The 6-3, 310-pound Turner started 20 games for LSU, including 13 last season. He had 115 career knockdowns before deciding to leave school a year early.
An NFL.com analysis said Turner plays with good overall body mass and walls off defenders and generates movement in the run game.
“I’m physical and able to overpower defensive tackles and also able to finesse and get up to the second level of the defense,” Turner said.
The Panthers are hoping Turner provides some stability at guard.
The Arizona Cardinals chose North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin with the first of their two third-round picks in the NFL draft.
The 6-foot-6, 272-pound defensive lineman had 178 career tackles, 92 solo, for the Tar Heels. He had 13½ career sacks, 11½ last season. Martin deflected 13 passes, caused four fumbles and recovered four others.
Martin, a team captain, played on the line but knows he could be asked to play some outside linebacker in Arizona’s 3-4 defensive scheme. He says playing linebacker would be a “tough adjustment” but believes he is a good enough athlete to pull it off.
Martin was the 84th overall pick in the draft.
Martin and UNC tight end Eric Ebron are the only players drafted from Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State so far.