While the Panthers said goodbye to one of their longest-tenured players Wednesday, they also moved toward a resolution with one of their younger stars.
A league source said the team is preparing to use its franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy. The fourth-year player tied a team single-season record with 15 sacks in 2013. He would be one of the league’s most sought-after free agents if Carolina lets him hit the open market. The deadline for teams to tag one of their players is Monday at 4 p.m. ET.
Even though the Panthers have at least a couple dozen decisions to make — including finding a replacement for longtime left tackle Jordan Gross, who retired Wednesday — they need to make a final call on Hardy in the next few days.
During two media appearances — after the playoff loss to the 49ers and at the NFL Combine — general manager Dave Gettleman stressed the Panthers remain “cap challenged.” He was also noncommittal about Hardy, who would command too much money for a long-term deal.
The estimated cost of a franchise tag for defensive ends in 2014 is between $12-$13 million. If the Panthers do tag Hardy, they will lose a big chunk of their cap space, but the organization believes he is too important to just let walk.
Owner Jerry Richardson has charged Gettleman to build a team that will post a winning record in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history, and keeping Hardy for 2014 would be a key piece to that plan.
While many are focused on the Texans pairing star defensive end J.J. Watt with potential top draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, the tag would keep what is arguably the league’s current best end duo together for another season. Hardy and Charles Johnson combined for 49.5 sacks the last two years, tied for most in the NFL. They are the only pair to rack up double-digit sacks in each of the last two seasons.
The “evaluation process” for other Panthers players, including wide receiver Steve Smith is ongoing, but putting Hardy back into the mix could appease nervous fans for the time being.