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The Second-Best Defensive End Prospect: Ealy Or Ford?

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Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images.

At the beginning of the 2013 college football season, Kony Ealy of Missouri was projected to as be a possible first-round defensive end. By season's end, it was Ealy's linemate Michael Sam who became the SEC Defensive MVP.

Dee Ford of Auburn burst from the shadows with a dominating Senior Bowl performance. His confidence and bravado in believing he is as good if not better than Jadeveon Clowney has the draft world talking.

Both prospects competed in the highly competitive, talent-rich SEC. Both players fought for their respective teams in the SEC championship. Now, both players have positioned themselves as possible first-round selections, and to be the second end taken in the 2014 NFL Draft (behind, presumably, Clowney). 

Kony Ealy, Missouri

Ealy measured out at 6-foot-4 and 273 pounds. He posted a 4.92 in the 40-yard dash along with a 31-inch vertical leap. Not great numbers when compared to other first-round prospects. He shows very good change of direction and can re-direct and pursue like a linebacker. Kony doesn’t show a great burst at the snap, which hampers his speed rush at times. When he does get free, he has displayed good closing ability and can hit home for the sack.

Throughout the games I evaluated (Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, Oklahoma St.), I saw flashes of good bend on the edge, with Ealy getting underneath a tackle and getting to the QB. He also had dry spells where he looked stiff and unable to get by anyone. Just when you think he lacks the ability to bend, he pulls a move that makes you say “whoa.”

Ealy needs to develop more powerful hands. He lacks any pop in his punch and if a good tackle gets his hands into him, he lacks the appropriate hand combat skills at this time to stay clean. His ability to move in space is good and at times he exhibits good footwork in gap moves and stunts.

In the run game, Ealy plays a bit high and his lack of power in his punch allows blockers to get into his body and knock him off the line. Even in run stunts, where he could use his athletic ability to his advantage, he plays high, which negates his playmaking ability. When he does play low and shoots through, he is a disruptive force in the backfield.

Much of Ealy's inconsistency can be attributed to his developing instincts. He doesn’t always recognize blocks and plays them as if he is surprised he's being blocked. Ealy does take plays off at times, and when plays are moving away he coasts. Still, his flashes of playmaking ability has intrigued enough scouts to look at him as a possible first-rounder.

Dee Ford, Auburn

At 6-2, 252, Ford is a tweener. He did not run at the combine due to an undisclosed medical issue, so scouts will have to wait until his pro day to determine his measurables.

Ford has been under the radar with Clowney casting such a big shadow on the position. Even in his own conference, he has taken a backseat to the Missouri bookends, Sam and Ealy. The Senior Bowl was his time to shine and he took advantage of that spotlight with a great week of practice and two sacks in the game. Ford has elite first step quickness, and his snap timing is equally as incredible. He's lethal at the snap. In his game against Georgia he owned the right tackle most of the game, beating him time and time again with his burst and speed.

Ford shows some edge moves, chopping arms down and an uncanny ability to dip and run underneath tackles. In the SEC championship game, Ford showed his ability to transition his speed to power moves, showing off his new skill with an early sack on James Franklin. Ford does need to develop a more violent punch and some power moves to add to his repertoire.

His ability to defend the run is good when he can play the open 5 technique away from the tight end and work in space. Teams countered Ford’s speed by placing a tight end to his side, which limited his ability to work the edge at times. That placed him in 6 technique or head up on a TE and created opportunities for offenses to double team him at the edge, knocking him off the line of scrimmage. When he is on the open side, his burst off the ball helps contain and squeeze plays.

Ford shows some good instincts, like knowing when to stop a pass rush and deflect a pass, or feel out screens when teams try to use his burst against him. What makes Ford really special is he plays with a high motor, running all over the field never giving up on a pass rush or play. This, combined with the right situation, Ford can be a great edge rusher in the NFL.

Who is the better prospect?

Ealy has the more prototypical body type, speed and athletic ability team’s desire in an end. Ford has the elite first step, burst and motor coaches love, but his lack of size creates questions to the unimaginative. Ford has been projected as a possible OLB at the next level, and in the right scheme as long as he is rushing the passer, you will get productivity from Ford. In the right situation, where Ford is allowed to rush the passer, whether it’s as a rush end or OLB, he is the better player. In a league that puts a premium on pass rushing, having a player that can hit home is a must. Does it matter if he plays 20 snaps a game, but collects 10 sacks over the course of a season? Ealy is a great-looking prospect, but has red flags with his effort and technique, and lacks great first step burst. He is the more complete player, but in the end I feel Ford is not far off base with his claim of being as good as Clowney. Now, I don’t believe he is at that level, but he has enough traits similar to him to make a team sit down and evaluate what they can do to get the most from his play.