2018 Jets free agency preview: Should Kony Ealy stay or go?

Twenty-five New York Jets are set to become some type of free agent in March, so for the next few weeks, we’ll be inspecting the team’s most important pending free agents and renewing our series that asks: Should He Stay or Should He Go?

Like a few other players on the Jets’ roster, Kony Ealy had a pretty rough 2017.

After a seemingly fruitful start to his career in Carolina, he was traded to New England in March, went to camp with the Patriots but was then waived near the end of preseason. The Jets signed him off waivers shortly before trading Sheldon Richardson away. It should also be noted that during the season, Ealy had to cope with the death of his sister.

The 2014 second-round pick and brief star of Super Bowl 50 now has more personal agency over his team affiliation than he did in 2017, as he hits free agency for the first time. His season with the Jets was low on statistical excellence but sometimes high on impact when he got on the field. Should Ealy stay or should he go?

What he did in 2017

Ealy made a memorable Jets debut in his only preseason game, recording a sack and a forced fumble. He saw playing time early in the regular season as part of a rotation behind Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams. In the Jets’ first win of the year, Week 3 against Miami, he was on the field for two thirds of the team’s total defensive snaps. The next week against Jacksonville, he batted down four passes, including one he intercepted himself. He finished the year with 11 tackles and a sack he registered against Buffalo Week 9.

Ealy missed one game with a minor shoulder injury, and through the 15 games he appeared in, he was on the field for 40.5 percent of New York’s defensive snaps (452 total). That was fourth-most among defensive linemen behind Williams, Wilkerson and nose tackle Steve McLendon. But oddly enough, his usage decreased significantly during the final few weeks of the season – about the same time Todd Bowles benched Wilkerson for the rest of the season for constant meeting tardiness. You’d think Ealy would have seen more game action when Wilkerson was deactivated, but starting with the New Orleans game Week 15, he played just 19, 21 and 10 snaps in the final three games, while teammate Xavier Cooper saw much more action.

What could be his role in 2018?

This is tricky to determine now, due to the Jets’ lack of interest in him in December that I just noted. There’s a chance that he doesn’t figure into the Jets’ long-term plans if they favored the little-known Cooper over him in December as Wilkerson’s replacement.

Wilkerson is gone, for all intents and purposes. The Jets will have to fill a hole on the starting defensive front, and Ealy is a logical choice. Could they convert him to a stand-up pass rusher instead? He’d have to shed some of his 275-pound build first. It’s not unheard of, but then again, it didn’t work with Quinton Coples.

Overall, Ealy still has the talent to be an NFL starter. Super Bowl 50 wasn’t that long ago—although his Panthers ultimately lost, he embarrassed the ghost of Peyton Manning by becoming the only player to record an interception and multiple sacks in one Super Bowl (he notched three sacks in that game). In his first three regular seasons with Carolina, he finished with 14 total sacks. Those aren’t Pro Bowl numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but better single-season totals than any individual Jet besides Demario Davis recorded in 2017.

What’s he worth?

Ealy made less than $1 million each year on his rookie contract, and despite a 2017 season with few sacks or other highlight moments, he should be looking for a small raise. Of the five players Spotrac judges to be sufficiently similar to Ealy, only one of them is valued at more than $1 million a year, so that’s the right ballpark for now.

The Jets could have close to $100 million to work with if they cut Wilkerson and Matt Forte like they’re expected to do. It wouldn’t be a problem to retain Ealy, provided they want him.

Should he stay or should he go?

I’ve held back from making my favorite football joke until now, so I’m going to parody it for the big reveal of my decision: #Kony2018.

I think Ealy should be brought back on a short-term deal with key incentives. If he can prove himself to be a better option than Xavier Cooper to start alongside Williams and McLendon, his salary should be bumped up. We know he’s a talented athlete about to hit his prime (he just turned 26). He’s healthy and he’s a known quantity with a good ceiling. Better to stick with him, at least for now, than try to draft someone to take Wilkerson’s place when so many other needs are more pressing in the draft.

Photo courtesy of newyorkjets.com

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