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Arguably the top free agent this offseason is Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, and perhaps no player has a more uncertain future than Hardy.
Hardy is highly coveted by the Panthers, who drafted him four seasons ago out of Mississippi and have seen him post double-digit sack totals each of the past two seasons. Then again, every team in need of a pass-rusher is watching with bated breath for March 11 to hit to make their pitch to Hardy.
According to ESPN’s Louis Riddick, a former member of both the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles front offices, Hardy, 25, is the best player available on the free-agent market.
Greg Hardy is the only UFA that I would b trying 2 get pen-to-paper in the 1st 24-36 hours of Free Agency, provided everything checked out.
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) February 9, 2014
No talks between the Panthers and Hardy had transpired as of Jan. 31, according to the Charlotte Observer, but the defensive end believes the team is working to create cap space in order to make him an offer. “If they can afford me, man, I’d love to be there. That’s my team,” he said.
If Carolina cannot muster up a long-term deal for Hardy, it’s certainly likely they’ll slap him with the franchise tag, which Hardy has stated he’s open to. The franchise tag for defensive ends in 2014 is estimated to be about $12 million.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has called Hardy “a piece of the puzzle,” but the team also has to prepare long-term contracts for quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, and perhaps rising defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. And if the team cannot afford to keep Hardy, there is certainly a large market for the star defensive end.
Among the two teams most connected to him are NFC South rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta. As head coach of the Chicago Bears, Bucs coach Lovie Smith lured Julius Peppers out of Charlotte to the Windy City. Now at the helm of Tampa, he could use a pass-rusher like Hardy to sure up his defense.
The Falcons lacked any sort of pass rush since releasing John Abraham after the 2012 season. The team is rumored to be in the mix for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but if they elect to go in a different direction in the draft, they could try and sign Hardy, a move that would not only strengthen their defense but weaken their rivals’.
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