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Is new Patriots EDGE Kony Ealy a roster lock?

The Patriots acquired Ealy in a draft swap, but does that mean he will make the team?

The New England Patriots acquired EDGE Kony Ealy from the Carolina Panthers in exchange for dropping eight draft spots from 64th to 72nd in the 2017 NFL Draft. I called the move “a steal” for the Patriots because they gave up almost nothing for a player at a position of need with proven starting experience as one of the leading defensive ends for a quality defense. Ealy would join Rob Ninkovich and Trey Flowers to form the New England pass rush.

Then the Patriots went out and drafted EDGE Derek Rivers in the third round and EDGE Deatrich Wise Jr. in the fourth round, creating a little log jam at the position.

I still think the move to acquire Ealy was a shrewd decision by Bill Belichick and company, but it’s fair to wonder where Ealy stands on the current crowded edge defender depth chart.

From a production standpoint, Ealy offered an incredibly high ceiling, but failed to reach it on a consistent basis. He had a marquee performance at Super Bowl 50, but followed that up as one of the least productive pass rushers in 2016.

Ealy’s pass rush efficiency was hurt by his lack of production over the first half of the season, but received a nice bump once the Panthers reduced his role down the final stretch.

“Over the first six weeks of the 2016 NFL season, until the Panthers bye week, Ealy played 67% of the Panthers defensive snaps and recorded just 1 quarterback hit and 1 pass defended,” I noted back in March. “After the bye week, Ealy’s role was reduced to 53% of the snaps, but his production surged with 5 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, 1 interception, 1 pass defended, and 1 forced fumble.”

And over the past two years, Ealy ranked first or second in most major defensive stats out of Panthers defensive ends, including snaps, forced fumbles, sacks, and tackles for loss and the vast majority of his production comes in the second half of the season. It’s not like Ealy can’t play; he just needs to be more consistent.

Perhaps a reduced role with the Patriots is exactly what the doctor orders- but that assumes that New England considers him a roster lock.

The Patriots gave up the equivalent of the 147th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft to acquire Ealy, per the new Draft Value Chart, which is the same as an early fifth round pick. The Patriots rarely make picks in the fifth round, but when they do they usually stick around for a few years, including the likes of LS Joe Cardona, OT Marcus Cannon, ST Matthew Slater, and C Dan Koppen.

Dating back to 2001, TE Lee Smith (2011) and OT Clint Oldenburg (2007) are the only Patriots fifth round picks to not spend some time with the Patriots roster (including those on the practice squad and with injuries), and the Patriots wanted Smith on the practice squad, but the Buffalo Bills claimed him on waivers.

In other words, the Patriots do value fifth round picks, if only for a season. Coincidentally, Ealy’s contract expires after this upcoming year so he is most likely just a one-year rental.

The Patriots are in no rush to cut any of their pass rushers in case there is an injury in camp, and while the numbers game could create a crunch during roster cuts, Ealy is likely to make the team- even if he can’t be considered a roster lock.