Should the Panthers Pay The Kraken?
Greg Hardy has recorded 26 sacks in the last two seasons. He plays one of the most lucrative positions on defense. He helped his team clinch the division by recording eight sacks in the final three weeks of the season. He’s 25. He’s about to get paid.
The question becomes, given the Panthers cap situation and roster, should they commit eight figures a season to Greg Hardy? The question gets complicated by the Panthers cap situation and need in the next two years to pay both Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, as well as the need to address pressing needs on the offense. If the Panthers were to franchise Hardy, with the intent of keeping him, it would require most of their limited cap space and force them to plug holes via the draft and with minimum salary waiver-type guys. It’s prohibitive to say the least. A long-term deal could be worked to reduce his cap number this season, but the Panthers cap struggles will extend through next off-season, when the deal would likely have to begin ballooning. Before accepting that as the preferred route, the question still remains is he worth it? Let’s take a look.
Panther fans sometimes get upset when it’s stated Greg Hardy isn’t an elite pass rusher, given his sack total, but Hardy’s value lies in his versatility. His ability to drop into coverage, which he did twice a game this season, allows for more creative pressures to be drawn up by Defensive Coordinator, Sean McDermott. According to ProFootballFocus, Hardy was the sitxh-highest ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run and he played fifteen percent of snaps at a position other than right defensive end. Those abilities combined with nearly four pressures per game and fifteen sacks this year make for a lethal package and potentially a cornerstone of a defense.
You can see Hardy’s impact all over the field in this graphic. His sacks, tackles and assisted tackles are all represented.
Hardy’s solo tackles (excluding sacks), however paints a different picture. His impact is still, predictably, most noticeable between the hashes, but the numbers are dramatically reduced. Playing alongside Star Lotulelei and in front of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis created a lot of opportunities for assisted tackles. Hardy only recorded four solo tackles for loss. Two showed tremendous awareness on WR screens to his side, one was a nice play against the 49ers on the read-option and the 4th was a fumbled snap by Mike Glennon. While Hardy often showed tremendou hustle, it’s hard to look at this and believe he’s worthy of upwards of $10 million per year.
That leaves pass rushing, which ultimately determines if defensive ends get paid elite money. On the surface, fifteen sacks looks is an impressive total. One perhaps worthy of a 60 plus million dollar deal. But digging deeper, the numbers aren’t so staggering. Hardy recorded eight of his 15 sacks against Left Tackles in 2013. Only one of the eight, however, came against a franchise caliber Left Tackle, St. Louis’ Jake Long. The other seven came against either mediocre to bad Left Tackles, or rookie Terron Armstead who was making his first career start. Three of the seven came against the Giants Will Beatty, who is regarded as one of the worst pass blocking Left Tackles in the NFL. Another came against the Falcons Lamar Holmes, who played Left Tackle only after the first two options on Atlanta’s depth chart were injured. Hardy had one sack against Tampa’s Donald Penn, who is a middle of the road pass blocker, and two against the aforementioned rookie Terron Armstead. One of the sacks against Armstead came on a stunt where Hardy played on the interior and used the Right End’s move inside to suck Armstead in and give him the edge. A sack that could be credited to the coaches as much as Hardy.
Hardy had four sacks against Guards; one each versus Tampa Bay’s Gabe Carimi, New York Jets’ Brian Winters, New Orleans’ Ben Grubbs and Atlanta’s Peter Konz. Of the four, only Grubbs is regarded as a good pass blocker in the league. Hardy also recorded two sacks against Tight End Tony Gonzalez, where the Falcon was left on an island for one, and Running Back Steven Jackson missed his chip opportunity on the other. Finally, Hardy record a sack “against” the Patriots’ Nate Solder, where Solder read Hardy dropping back into pass coverage, and he was allowed a free rush to the Quarterback. Hardy’s lack of production against elite level pass blockers wasn’t a case of missed opportunities either. In the 17 games the Panthers played this year, Hardy matched up against a top flight Left Tackle eight times. He failed to record a sack in all but one of those games.
When reviewing all the games, one of the things that stuck out the most was the lack of double teams Greg Hardy received, but it became evident. Despite a gaudy sack total, he often feasted on the lessers of the league. As effective pass rush moves, he’s got a speed rush (how he got most of his sacks early in his career) and a stutter step move to the inside shoulder that often relies on a left tackle not putting his hands on Hardy. His impact in the running game has been exaggerated and given both of those factors, combined with the Panthers needs and cap situation, the Panthers would be wise not to overspend to keep him in Carolina. Panthers General Manager, Dave Gettleman, stated that allowing Hardy to walk would be a worst case scenario, but the Panthers don’t have to do that. They can place the franchise tag on Hardy with the intent of trading him. Doing so will tie up the majority of their cap space early, but by setting their price point at a buyer-friendly level (a 2nd and a 4th?) they should be able to quickly move him and move on.