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What can Kony Ealy bring to Jets pass rush?

FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 03: New England Patriots defensive lineman Kony Ealy (94) during Patriots training camp on August 3, 2017, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)
Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

The New York Jets have claimed Kony Ealy off waivers after the fourth-year pass rusher’s brief tenure in New England did not work out. After a draft weekend trade that helped the Patriots acquire him from the Carolina Panthers in exchange for eight draft spots, he did not do enough this summer to warrant a role on a defense that was looking to replace Rob Ninkovich on the edge.

Headed to his third team in less than four seasons, the once-highly touted Ealy will have a lot to prove to hold onto an NFL roster spot. Even though his inconsistencies have plagued him since he was a second-round draft pick in 2014, the upside is there, especially on a Jets roster that lacks an edge rush presence. Let’s break down what he can bring to Gang Green.

Any fan of the Jets is aware they haven’t had a consistent pass rush presence off the edge since John Abraham, who has been gone for over a decade now. While the interior is loaded with talent among Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, the edge players have consisted of a rotation of mediocrity.

Ealy’s role should be simple (keep in mind, it will still have to be earned): Pin back your ears and get to the quarterback. He won’t even have to finish for sacks all the time but, most important, force the passer up into the teeth of the defense, where the star-studded trio often push the pocket.

Lorenzo Mauldin, a 2015 third-round selection, had flashed at times, but he’s struggled to stay healthy and couldn’t be relied on as a run defender. Jordan Jenkins, a 2016 third-round pick, is a tremendous edge setter, surrendering very little against the run, but his pass rush ability is limited. While he’s certainly improved this offseason, specifically displaying excellent power on a one-handed sack against Tennessee, he’d ideally be a secondary threat off the edge.

There are times on film, as seen below, where Ealy flashes relentless effort and good hand usage to find his way to the quarterback. Limiting his role as a situational pass rusher, which makes the most sense for the Jets, could bring more plays like this:

While the Jets staff (especially outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene) has high hopes for rookie Dylan Donahue to be a productive, high-effort edge rusher, it’s hard to rely on a fifth-round pick to make an instant impact.

Ealy’s production has been far from spectacular during his three-year career, but he’s still managed 14 total sacks and an impressive six forced fumbles. More important, he registered 31 total pressures on 185 pass rush attempts in 2016. That’s not Pro Bowl level efficiency, but still a very big upgrade for the Jets defense at this position.

With a revamped, relatively young secondary in place, head coach Todd Bowles and his staff want to protect them at all costs. Leaving them in coverage for an eternity would be a recipe for disaster, which was often the case for the aging group on the back end in 2016.

Against the New York Giants on Saturday, a Sheldon Richardson pressure (and quarterback hit) led to an interception for second-year cornerback Juston Burris. Those kinds of plays not only help out the defensive backs, but also build confidence.

Ealy isn’t expected to be the long-awaited savior after the Jets experienced a revolving door of edge rushers, but he doesn’t have to be. The fourth-year player is running out of time to find a long-term home, but he’s a capable threat who will be given the chance to thrive in one-on-one opportunities. In a year where he needs to find consistency and success, the Jets need him even more.

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