Had it all gone according to plan, Kony Ealy would be preparing to face the New York Jets this week.
Instead, the defensive end – who’s currently working back from a shoulder injury – is preparing to face the team that moved down from No. 64 to No. 72 overall in the 2017 NFL draft to acquire him from the Carolina Panthers.
Ealy’s stint as a New England Patriot spanned five months and 95 preseason snaps, with his lone tackle and quarterback hit coming in the third exhibition game against the Detroit Lions. He played ominously late into that summer night at Ford Field, in what was supposed to be the dress rehearsal for the starters. Ealy wasn’t one.
The former second-round pick out of Missouri, and Super Bowl 50 standout, was placed on waivers the next day.
“I do think he was making progress and getting better and was really working hard,” Bill Belichick said of Ealy on his Aug. 26 conference call, via Patriots.com. “It's just one of those things that didn't work out or wasn't going to work out. It's nobody's fault. He worked hard. We worked hard. There was a lot of effort put in, but in the end we didn't feel like this was going to work out.”
Perhaps the Patriots should have been able to better identify that possibility before trading for Ealy. But New England’s lack of depth off the edge made his departure all the more telling.
Ealy wasn’t going to make the roster due to Jabaal Sheard signing with the Indianapolis Colts or Chris Long signing with the Philadelphia Eagles. Not due to Rob Ninkovich’s retirement or top draft choice Derek Rivers’ season-ending ACL tear. Not due to the swap of a late second for an early third.
The Patriots, in turn, gave him an opportunity to find another.
“I think he deserved that,” Belichick said of parting ways prior to the 53-man deadline. “He did everything we asked him to do. It just didn't work out for either one of us like we hoped it would.”
New England went forth with Trey Flowers, fourth-rounder Deatrich Wise Jr., undrafted free agent Adam Butler, special-teamer Geneo Grissom and the soon-to-be-traded-for Cassius Marsh. And Ealy went forth with one of the seven teams that put in a claim for him.
“It didn’t work out in Carolina for personal reasons. It didn’t work out in New England because of the scheme,” Ealy told reporters on Sept. 8, per NewYorkJets.com. “I’m not going to make excuses or fault anybody for that. It just didn’t work out. God didn’t have it in my plans to be in those places. So, I’m taking advantage of where I’m at now.”
The opportunity in East Rutherford has worked out thus far for Ealy. He’s appeared in four of five games for an unexpectedly 3-2 team. He’s started two and been credited with nine tackles, two QB hits as well as five pass deflections.
The role Ealy has there isn’t one he would have had in New England, whom New York will cross paths with for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff at Metlife Stadium this Sunday. It’s a reality he acknowledged before the campaign got underway.
“Those guys are great, man,” Ealy said of the Patriots last month. “I thank them for the opportunity. They’re great coaches, great teachers. Obviously it just wasn’t a fit for me. They felt like that, I kind of felt like that.”
Though he was ruled out ahead of Week 5 versus the Cleveland Browns, Ealy had logged the ninth-most snaps on the Jets’ defense through Week 4. And, on the same afternoon the Patriots and Panthers faced off, No. 94 earned a game ball after tipping four Blake Bortles throws and intercepting one in a 23-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This week’s opponent kept an eye out.
“Got his hands on some balls at the line of scrimmage,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on his media call Tuesday. “I know he had the one opportunistic interception. He’s created some pressure on the quarterback. He’s one of a lot of guys they got that can do that. So, he’ll be in there if he’s healthy enough to play in there.”
Whether Ealy will be cleared to go this weekend remains to be seen. But New England is readying as if he will be on the line next to the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams.
“They got a deep group. Kony’s a part of it now, and we certainly are familiar of some of the things with him from being in camp with him,” added McDaniels. “[He’ll] be a big part of the challenge that we got to deal with on Sunday.”