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Gearing up to cash in

Panthers pass rusher Greg Hardy closed out a stellar 2013 regular season campaign with four sacks on Sunday. Len Pasquarelli

Print This December 31, 2013, 07:00 AM EST
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With a half-dozen franchises seeking new head coaches following another “Black Monday” purge, one might assume it was difficult for team officials from at least a few franchises to see the future beyond planning candidate interviews. But contacted at team facilities on a bloody Monday morning, a couple front office guys who retained their jobs despite an exorcism in the coach’s office down the hall actually told NFP they were in the very early stages of planning for veteran free agency in the spring.


“We haven’t started watching tape yet . . . but it won’t be long until we do,” said a top personnel executive from one of the clubs that dumped its coach. “It doesn’t matter who the (new) coach is, the legwork still has to get done. It takes time, you know?”

As our good deed for the day, we’ll save the personnel man, and all of his colleagues around the league, some of that precious time. No sense, guys, spending even a few minutes poring over the highlight reel of Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy.

The guy can flat-out play, and when the “league year” commences on March 11, in roughly 2 ½ months, some team is going to make the four-year veteran a rich man. Whether it’s the Panthers, a team Hardy helped resurrect after a mundane stretch of campaigns, or some other franchise, someone is going to pay Hardy handsomely for the right to sign the pending unrestricted free agent.

In case anyone overlooked his Sunday performance, Hardy registered four sacks against Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in the regular-season finale. A week earlier, in the biggest game Carolina had played in years, he dumped New Orleans’ Drew Brees three times. The sack spree raised his total for 2013 to a career-best 15, a total eclipsed only by Robert Mathis of Indianapolis (19.5) and the St. Louis Rams’ Robert Quinn (19).

Never mind that seven of the sacks came in the past two outings and against inexperienced and overmatched Atlanta tackles Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder or Terron Armstead of the Saints. One guy (Holmes) who had played four snaps in 2012 and had been overrun at times in ’13, the other two rookies. And forget that, in addition to the late-season surge, Hardy had three sacks versus the New York Giants on Sept. 22, meaning two-thirds of his sacks came in just three games.

Greg HardyAfter notching seven sacks over his first 31 games, Hardy has brought down the quarterback 26 times in his last 31 starts.

Hardy is a big-motor, high-energy guy of whom teammates feed. At 290 pounds, the four-year veteran is hardly typical of the long-bodied “edge” rusher so prevalent in the NFL. He plays the run well, too, as evidenced by his 59 tackles. Of course, it’s the ability to transform left tackles into human turnstiles that figures to make Hardy one of the most attractive players in the free agent pool.

Truth be told, we haven’t yet spent much time studying the potential free agent roles, the way the personnel men to whom NFP spoke will do. And our untrained perspective point certainly won’t see things the way a scout’s prism will. But one would have to be a blind person not to gauge Hardy’s value in a league that values the ability to attack the pocket with such passion.

There may be better free agents in the 2014 class. But we’re betting that, if there is, the grouping must be a pretty elite subset.

After the game at the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon, Hardy was asked about his dominating play. He responded that he even “dominates breakfast.” Said the ever quotable Hardy, who in the preseason noted that his goal for the year was to ring up 50 sacks: “I dominate everything I do.”

That might not be totally true, but Hardy probably will dominate the free agency wish lists of some teams in a couple months. “When he puts his mind to something, there’s almost no stopping him,” Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “He’s a force. He’s everywhere.”

Against the Falcons, he, indeed, was almost everywhere, lining up at both end spots and even moving to tackle on occasion to torment the Atlanta interior linemen. Said Falcons left guard Justin Blalock: “He’s big and he’s fast and . . . what can you say?”

A sixth-round pick in ‘10, after his stock dropped following injuries and inconsistent play at the University of Mississippi, one doesn’t have to say much about Hardy. His play speaks volumes and, what it doesn’t say, the verbose Hardy will articulate for himself, it seems.

Asked about his motivation, Hardy said that he wants a championship, but also acknowledged that if his sacks prompt sack-loads of dollars, he won’t exactly be unhappy about it.

“I like the money,” Hardy said. “I won’t lie to you.”

In 2011, when Hardy’s running mate/end Charles Johnson was an unrestricted free agent, the Panthers retained him with a six-year, $72 million extension. That might be the starting point to keep Hardy around.


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