CHARLOTTE – Over the last month of the season, rookie defensive end Kony Ealy began to play like a starter.
Ealy sees that as merely a starting point for him and for the Panthers.
"I'm looking to step up big-time as far as getting that starting spot," Ealy said. "After that, I'll take one game at a time, but my next thing is getting to the Pro Bowl and trying to get to the Super Bowl."
For now, Ealy will have to settle for watching teammates Luke Kuechly and Greg Olsen play in the Pro Bowl on Sunday and be a spectator for a Super Bowl that pits the New England Patriots against the Seattle Seahawks – the team that knocked the Panthers out of the playoffs.
This time last year, Ealy didn't yet have an NFL home. Instead, he was among hundreds of draft prospects who were focused on putting their best foot forward for pro scouts.
Carolina selected Ealy – forecast by many as a first-round draft pick – with the 28th choice of the second round out of Missouri. After being inactive for the season opener, he played in every game the rest of the way and played more and more of a prominent role as the season wore on.
Ealy didn't record his first career sack until Week against the Seahawks, but he went on to get a sack in each of the Panthers' final three regular season games. For his efforts, which included nine quarterback pressures, Ealy was one of four defensive linemen league-wide named All-Rookie by the Pro Football Writers of America.
"I'm not going to say I did bad the first half of the season, but the second half was when I definitely felt my role, my understanding and my impact on the team grow," Ealy said. "All my veteran teammates, especially my D-line brothers and coaches but also TD (Thomas Davis) and Luke, were with me from the beginning. I give much credit to them.
"I had a great time. I learned a lot, improved a lot. I've got a lot to build off going into next season."
This offseason, rather than focusing on things like his 40 time or bench press, Ealy will focus on honing his game in preparation for his second NFL season.
"With pass rush, you can always improve your technique. You never get too old or know too much when it comes to technique," Ealy said. "I'll keep working on little things in my game to help magnify big things."
Looking back on his rookie season the day after it ended, Ealy mentioned his Pro Bowl goal more than once. While that honor typically requires impressive individual numbers to achieve, that's not what Ealy is all about.
"I love football. I love what I do," he said. "This whole season was a roller coaster ride with the guys I've been fighting with in the trenches. I liked being a part of something bigger than myself and look forward to many more years to come."