When the Green Bay Packers signed Julius Peppers to a three-year, $26 million contract that included a $7.5 million signing bonus, they allowed themselves to get out of the contract after just one season should Peppers prove to be over the hill at 34 years of age.
If the Packers release Peppers in 2015, it won't come cheap. He would cost $5 million in dead money against the salary cap next season, but that's the price of adding a potential difference maker to a unit that's underachieved ever since winning the Super Bowl following the 2010 season.
In the event that the Packers want to find the next "Elephant" end in this year's NFL Draft and a potential successor to Peppers, they might look in the direction of Missouri's Kony Ealy.
At 6' 4" and 273 lbs., some people think Ealy is a 4-3 defensive end, some think he's a 3-4 end, and some think he could even be a 3-4 outside linebacker. Ealy calls himself, "a hybrid."
"I'm an athlete," said Ealy at the NFL Combine. "I've been able to move around. Fortunately Coach Stec (Dave Steckel) at Missouri, the defensive coordinator, put me in good positions to do so, and I think I did a good job of showing my athleticism."
To say Ealy is an athletic is an understatement. At the NFL Combine, he did the three-cone drill in 6.83 seconds, the best among all defensive linemen, one of only two under seven seconds and .14 of a second better than the next-closest player.
If there's a player Ealy compares to at the NFL level, it's probably another former Missouri product, Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. Smith was a player thought to be an ideal fit as an end in a 4-3 defense but has succeeded as a linebacker in the 49ers' 3-4 defensive system, utilized primarily as an edge pass rusher.
"I compare myself to Aldon," said Ealy. "He's a freak athlete. He gets off the ball. He probably had a little more sacks than me in college in my career. And J.J. Watt when it comes to pass deflections."
During his junior season in 2013, Ealy had 42 tackles, 14 for a loss, eight sacks, three forced fumbles and six passes broken up in helping to lead Missouri to the SEC East title and being named first-team All-Conference. In three total college seasons, Ealy accumulated 27 total tackles for a loss and 12.5 sacks.
Considering he faced left tackles the likes of Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, Greg Robinson of Auburn and Antonio Richardson week in and week out in the SEC, Ealy's statistics come as all the more impressive.
Not everyone thinks Ealy can be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, however.
"As far as Ealy is concerned, ended up liking him more than I expected to, and I think he's a 4-3 defensive end," said Mike Mayock of the NFL Network. "I don't really think he's an outside linebacker.
"I think to compare him to, say, Smith who came out a couple years ago. He's not quite as athletic as Aldon Smith, but he's a little more physical, a little better against the run. So I think he's probably a base 4-3 end, and I think he'll go somewhere in that 20, 23 range in the first round."
The Packers fall in that 20 to 23 range with the 21st overall selection in May's Draft, but they'll have to decide whether they want to invest another first round draft choice in an "Elephant" type of defensive end with players like Peppers, Nick Perry and Mike Neal all under contract for at least the next two seasons.
Perry and Neal both have a lengthy injury history, but both have also shown to be effective when healthy, and that's where issues may arise. NFL teams can never have enough good pass rushers, but if players like Ealy, Peppers, Perry, Neal, Mike Daniels and Datone Jones are all healthy, the Packers may find it difficult to find room to put them all on the field at the same time.
Even if the Packers feel as if Ealy is the best player available at No. 21, they might feel an obligation to fill a position of greater need such as safety, inside linebacker or a big receiver target.
Presuming they couldn't pass up Ealy, however, the Packers would be getting a player ready for the challenges of transitioning from college football to the NFL.
"Just being more serious about about the job and knowing that you don't have any instructions, there's no class, there's no friends, it's strictly business, just everyday grind," said Ealy. "You get in, you work on getting in your playbook. Knowing your plays is really key and also working on technique."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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