There's only one player missing from last year's dominant Carolina Panthers front seven, and that player is Greg Hardy. That much, we all know.
What we don't know is why one player's absence seems to have had such a deleterious effect on the defense. If it were All-Universe MLB Luke Kuechly being gone, the defensive decline could possibly be seen as a direct result. But missing a defensive end? MMmm that's more than a bit surprising for any team.
There are differing opinions on Hardy's overall ability, his stopping the run, and/or his disappearing in certain games last year, but the fact is he WAS the guy on the defensive line that other teams had to work their game-plans around. Hardy had developed into an elite pass rusher as well as a very above-average player setting the edge against the run.
Now that his bizarre sexual cravings have put him in the same box as ex-NFL star Ray Rice, Hardy's future with the organization is in question.
Did he sucker punch his fiancee in an elevator like Rice? No, of course not. But he was found guilty by a judge in his domestic violence case and is appealing it. The latest word on his new trial is that it won't happen until after the season - not the November date that was previously scheduled.
So we all have one question left. Will Greg Hardy be in the Panthers' black and blue next year?
We know he's "employed" under the franchise tag, which worked out to be over $11 million that the Panthers wasted and could have gotten better talent and/or more depth in areas of need.
We might have even been able to sign one of the few established veteran left tackles instead of putting guard Byron Bell at the position. Yes, I know he's always played tackle but as I tweeted the other day, Byron Bell has the lateral agility of a retired Sumo wrestler.
Not an active one, but a retired one.
I could play "what if?" all day, but the Hardy situation isn't quite so clear as many fans think it is.
I hear fans saying get rid of him, let him walk, whatever - let him go. However, the Panthers organization doesn't use hurt feelings to make their decisions.
The main thing is that they all have to let the legal side play out first and foremost. If Hardy's upcoming jury trial finds him not guilty, the NFL might have to re-re-re-think their policy on domestic abuse. The time will come when a player is falsely accused, found not guilty, and WILL SUE THE NFL OVER IT. Ray Rice is in that process as I type.
I believe THAT is where the NFLPA will get in their 4-point stance and try to blow through the interference where a potentially innocent man is denied employment, whether still receiving his salary or not. The "grounds" would likely be that the player in question wasn't allowed on the field when he otherwise would have been, and not playing hurts his value and earning potential going forward as well as anything else the NFLPA can accuse the NFL of along those lines.
However, this is not that time....I'm just saying it'll come someday so watch out for it. In Hardy's case, the damage is largely done - for now.
Hardy could well test free agency as the Panthers may simply want to be rid of the distraction once and for all. He likely won't command the $12-$15 million per year that he would otherwise have cashed in on. In fact, personality/maturity issues caused him to fall to the 6th round when he was drafted by the Panthers and was actually a first or second-round talent that fell far, so his behavior costing him money isn't new.
That's one factor the Panthers will consider regardless of the outcome of his upcoming trial. It was dumb of Hardy to be involved with the type of person he was involved with - a hard drug user - and think that nothing untoward might happen. He did, and it did, and here we are.
Considering just the legal and character side of things, David Gettleman would seem to have the leverage if there's still any interest at all in retaining Hardy, but it's far from settled. Every coin has two sides to it.
There's the fact that Hardy's absence has been the most obvious cause of the defensive issues the team has had this season. They went from 2nd overall last year to roughly 2nd-worst this year, to oversimplify things.
Hardy's case is also completely different from that of Ray Rice. The "rumor mill" as it were now seems to think that the Panthers' organization as a whole doesn't think Hardy is a violent person...other than when his job description calls for it, of course. Meanwhile, the lack of new information on his case and the incident in general has festered with fans to the point that probably most think he won't be back with the team next year.
Without Hardy, the Panthers have a come-and-go pass rush - mostly "go" - and the lack of talent in the defensive backfield is sticking out like a sore thumb. Gettleman did draft two DBs - safety Tre' Boston in the 4th and Bene' "The Fed Chief" Benwikere in the 5th round of this year's draft.
Boston is just recently beginning to see the field and hasn't had an impact at all yet. Benwikere hasn't fared all that much better, being a nickel corner and having missed significant time with injury, but at least has shown some signs of having some good upside with experience.
Otherwise, we've got inter-division rejects starting at the safety spots in ex-Falcon Thomas DeCoud and ex-Saint Roman Harper. Toss in UFA signee from last year, Melvin White, and several DBs-on-the-cheap like Antoine Cason, and David Gettleman doesn't have enough fingers to plug all the holes in the dyke.
The most obvious and most talented "fix" is....to re-sign Greg Hardy.
Hardy's no dummy when it comes to self-promotion, his legal issues aside, and has built quite the persona as "The Kraken" we've all come to know and....hate on lately.
As you can see, there are a number of issues to weigh here and they'll ALL have to wait for a resolution on Hardy's case one way or the other. Only then will the best direction to go present itself.
So who has the leverage now - Hardy or Gettleman?
The answer to that is neither one. Both.
Either is correct at the moment, depending on how you look at things. The reality is, politics aside, that both need each other. I'm just not sure if the fans can ever forgive Hardy for putting himself in this mess and by extension, the team and the entire season. If Hardy is unquestionably guilty of something as things sit right now, it's having very poor judgement.
That alone could be enough to send Hardy to the Raiders or the Bengals as a free agent next season, but only time will tell.
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye