Odds are High this is Greg Hardy's Final Season as a Carolina Panther

I've said David Gettleman, General Manager of the Carolina Panthers, doesn't look at the short term when making his decisions. He doesn't look at "just" this year OR next; he looks at the very long-term, multi-year picture.

He's a "forest" guy, not a "trees" guy like Marty Hurney was.

The reason is he "gets it" as far as the salary cap goes. He knows you have to take the very long-term view into account in order to keep a talented team on the field while not breaking the bank as his predecessor did and his penny-pinching ways have this organization pointing in the right direction after last year's 12-4 season.

Gettleman and Rivera are big on team chemistry and don't like the applecart being upset. With that in mind, one Greg Hardy has found himself in quite the offseason mess.

Just a day or two ago, Hardy pled "not guilty" to the charge of criminal domestic violence stemming from the 911 call about two months ago when his then (now ex) girlfriend claimed Hardy "threw her on a couch covered with guns" while boasting "every single one of them (guns) is loaded." 

As it turns out, any firearms the police found were all legally owned by Hardy but certainly doesn't make his case look any better.

He has since been found guilty of Assault on a Female and, as such, will likely be found in violation of the NFL's "personal conduct" policy.

In the 911 call, Hardy said the girlfriend was on drugs. Ouch.

You see, even if SHE were the one strung out on drugs and even if SHE made up the entire incident, the fact that Hardy is cavorting with such unsavory people as drug abusers, it reflects poorly upon him. Remember the saying...."You are known by the company you keep?" 

Being known for dating women who do hard drugs isn't something that impresses most people. It's not like the woman simply had a few drinks or smoked a joint - alcohol is a legal substance and if she had smoked a joint, I seriously doubt she'd have been so agitated. One got the impression the drug was cocaine from the circumstances, and that's most definitely not a good thing. And she apparently didn't make it all up as Hardy's "guilty" verdict attests.

Dave Gettleman kept Hardy this offseason and used most of the available cap space to do so. If memory serves, he'll be making more than $11 million this year under the franchise tag as a defensive end. 

(No word yet about any clamoring to be franchised as a wide receiver...)
Greg Hardy
At any rate, I think this somewhat telegraphed Gettleman's intentions in two different ways. First of all, he could have signed The Kraken to a long-term contract...and those are usually back-end loaded, which would have given Hardy a smaller salary cap footprint for 2014. Instead, he was signed for the higher amount, but just for the one year. It gives Rivera and Gettleman an extra season of production to see without locking him into a big-money deal, coming off a franchise-record 15 sacks.

Yep...even Julius Peppers in his prime only had 14.5 sacks for his season-high as a Panther back in 2008.

This is a nice segue into the drafting of Kony Ealy out of Missouri in the second round this year. Yes, Gettleman knew the team needed 1st-round talent at both WR and OT, but could obviously take only one or the other. With the tackles gone, he went with the huge-but-raw young receiver in Kelvin Benjamin. 

However, Ealy fell down the draft board and well out of the first round because of a poor 40-yard dash time. I've been over the fallacy of this reasoning (how often do DEs have to run 40 yards?) as Ealy's position-best 3-cone drill showed the guy is quick as a cat and can probably do both bull- and speed-style rushes as he changes direction very well and could be one of those pass rushers that "makes the blocker miss" with his quick feet.

When Ealy was drafted, I immediately connected the dots. If nothing else, Gettleman plans on using him as leverage with Hardy in contract talks following Ealy's rookie campaign and, if he pans out the way I think he will as the top substitution off the bench, Gettleman could just let Hardy go outright if he thinks there won't be much drop by saving ten million dollars a year in going with Ealy as the starter for the 2015 campaign.

Hardy's recent legal troubles just complicates things that much more, but possibly makes the decision to let him walk after this season an easier one to swallow and for fans to see the logic in. Do we really want to invest that kind of money in someone who gets in fairly serious legal trouble? It's not just the "legal trouble" but the hint of violence directed against a woman that makes things so politically charged.

Last but not least, Gettleman has not one but two massive deals to get done over the next two seasons without Hardy in the first place. By sometime next season at the latest, he has to sign Cam Newton to a massive raise if he wants to keep him around as the franchise QB - something he appears willing to do after Cam's continued improvement last season.

Next season or the one after, he'll have to sign Luke Kuechly to likely unheard-of money for a middle linebacker and "Luuuke" will be worth every penny, whatever the cost is. In just his first two seasons, he has won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year. 

Folks, there just ain't no doin' no better than that. Kuechly has not only led the NFL in tackles over his first two seasons, but actually tied for the team lead in interceptions last year with four. That's unheard of for a middle linebacker!

He's also a player with unique skills with elite instincts and speed and has already become the head and shoulders leader of the NFL's second-best defensive unit....and a unit that has some great young talent when you consider Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short - two other players the Panthers would probably like to keep over the long term if their rookie seasons are an indication.

Then, there's the issue of Hardy's production. Yes, he had 15 sacks last season for a franchise record, but he'd get them in bunches while vanishing in some games.

For instance, Hardy was shut out in the sacks department in five of his first six games this season while putting up three on Eli Manning in that 38-0 rout of the New York Giants. That's nice, but something tells me the Panthers probably would have still won that game if Hardy hadn't made any sacks.

He finished the season strong, to his credit, putting up seven sacks in the final two games when the division title was on the line, so that's one strong thing he does have in his favor. 

"Great players make big plays in big games" has been a longtime mantra among NFL players, but Hardy once again vanished in the home playoff loss to the Niners. He had 1 tackle with 5 assists and no sacks...although he faced off against a team built very similarly to that of the Panthers on both sides of the ball: Play strong defense and pound the rock. Throw in Colin Kaepernick's elusiveness and speed and you have a difficult recipe for racking up sacks in general.

The defense wasn't to blame for the loss as the Panthers scored only 10 points again - the same as in their 10-9 victory earlier in the season at San Francisco - but the defense gave up 23 in the playoff loss. A monster game from Hardy probably wouldn't have turned the loss into a win, but it might have kept the game a bit closer for a bit longer, changing the play calling on offense by keeping more of the playbook in play, and who knows what could have happened if Hardy had another 3- or 4-sack game?

Well....perhaps one could have been a sack/fumble, wiping out 7 points from the Niners' total while flipping the field and Carolina scoring a TD instead of having to punt on a series. That's a 14-pt swing and would have made the score Carolina 17, San Fran 16.

None of any of this is lost on David Gettleman or Ron Rivera, and Hardy's legal issues have made him rather radioactive in the offseason. 

If Kony Ealy can show the promise that recent defensive draftees like Star, Kawann, and Luke have shown, Hardy could be unceremoniously shown the door.

Don't forget, if Gettleman has made up his mind (or makes it up) before the trade deadline arrives this season, he's in perfect position to trade Hardy away, likely for a second round pick plus a mid-round pick, while at the same time making the trade partner be the one who has to ink Hardy to that mega-deal he is going to want with a fifth consecutive double-digit sack year.

I don't think it's something Gettleman is willing to do, especially given all the circumstances I've listed.

No, the more I think about it, the more I'm thinking Gettleman lets Hardy go and saves that cap space for his two impact stars - Cam and Luke - and it's exactly what he should do.

"Release the Kraken?"


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