Craig Kuligowski has built himself quite the reputation as a defensive line coach.
First it was Justin Smith and Ziggy Hood. Then Aldon Smith and Sheldon Richardson came through Missouri and were groomed by Kuligowski. In 2013, Missouri had four productive defensive ends, including two who were named first team All-SEC.
Michael Sam gets the attention, and rightfully so. Not only does he have a chance to be the first openly gay player in NFL history, but he was named co-defensive player of the year in the SEC and was an All American.
Despite what Sam did on the field in 2013, his teammate Kony Ealy is the better NFL prospect and could be the next name on Kuligowski's long list of athletic defensive linemen that he helped turn into NFL stars. While offenses were paying attention to Ealy, Sam was able to rack up the impressive statistics. Meanwhile, it was Ealy who was the more impressive player during the second half of the season and the best player on Missouri's defense throughout the season.
Pass rush: Ealy is a versatile pass rusher who can get after the quarterback on the edge or from the interior. His first step leaves a little something to be desired, which might have something to do with his inconsistent snap anticipation. However, Ealy has shown he has the pass rush moves, strength and quickness to make life tough on blockers. His rip and swim moves were particularly effective this season, and he's starting to learn how to set up his moves. That is an area he needs to continue to develop.
Ealy is one of the more versatile front seven players in this draft. He could conceivable move inside and play on the edge in a 4-3 and could have his hand in the dirt or play standing up in a 3-4. His best fit will be on the edge in a 4-3 defense, though. Ealy is such a fluid athlete who continues to develop more and more with each passing game. He still needs to learn how to play with a better pad level in order to be more consistent around the edge.
Pursuit/Quickness: Nobody will say Ealy is the fastest player on the field, but he does have enough speed to make plays down the field. He can change direction reasonably well and finishes plays. Ealy was relied upon to work his way through traffic and chase down ball carriers. His agility definitely comes in handy here. Ealy moves really well for a player his size.
Run defense: There are positives and negatives to Ealy's run defense. He's an aggressive and passionate player. That aggressiveness comes in handy at times but can burn him at others. Ealy needs to get a bit more consistent at diagnosing running plays and taking proper angles to the ball. Improved angles make would make him a more high-percentage tackler. However, his quickness makes him dangerous when crashing down the line of scrimmage and getting through traffic to make stops in the backfield. Ealy's strength also helps him stack and shed effectively. Essentially, Ealy has the physical tools to dominate in the running game. He just has to continue to refine his game to reach his potential and become a more consistent player on every down.
Ealy is definitely a strong person and that translates on the football field. If he starts to play with more consistent pad level, he will get even better leg drive and his strength will stand out a bit more. As a tackler, Ealy doesn't always lay the biggest hits. If he improves the angles he takes, he may start getting a better piece of the ball carriers he's hitting. Ealy has more than enough strength to be a reliable tackler, though.
Technique: For the most part, Ealy is technically sound. One issue he had early in his career was playing too upright and getting blocked easily as a result. In his junior season this improved but was still an issue. Most of Ealy's technical issues stem from his pad level.
Pro comparison: Justin Tuck, New York Giants - Like Tuck, Ealy enters the NFL as a player who will rely on his agility and strength while picking up the nuances of the NFL games. Tuck and Ealy both demonstrate a solid first step and excellent inside moves when getting to the quarterback.
Final word: After Jadeveon Clowney, the 2014 NFL Draft defensive end class is a bit muddled. Not many players stand out as pure 4-3 defensive ends. Ealy will benefit from that on draft day. He has all of the physical tools to play at a high level in the NFL but needs to refine some of the mental parts of his game. The fire and emotion he flashes on the field need to be more consistent and also reigned in. He needs to prove he can bring it on every play. Ealy is not without flaws as a prospect, but all of his flaws are easily fixable. His physical talent is something that can't be taught.