Top 20 Panthers of 2012: #15 DE Greg Hardy

ATLANTA - OCTOBER 2: Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears flips a pass against Greg Hardy #76 of the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field on October 2, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Picking my Top 20 Panthers of 2012 series back up we've got DE Greg Hardy who comes in a little lower than I would have expected. But don;t let the ranking dissuade you from thinking Hardy is not a key to the defense in 2012. Teams will certainly account for Charles Johnson on every play and that should leave Hardy matched up one on one in many pass rushing situations. Many pundits outside of Carolina have even acknowledged this could and should be a break out year for the unfulfilled player.

In 2011 the player we affectionately labeled the 'The Kraken' (which he acknowledges) won the starters job after the Panthers released Tyler Brayton. The result was a nice increase in his stats but his performance left a little to be desired, Ace of Sween describes:

Ace: He's shown a lot of flashes, particularly his rookie season, but left a little to be desired in the run game last year. From breaking goal posts in Chicago to blocking punts against the Giants, there was a lot to be excited about from the Kracken of Carolina. Sadly, last season he was a bit inconsistent. Maybe he was simply overused as he saw more defensive snaps than anyone else on the field.

As a result Hardy dedicated himself to getting bigger and streonger in the offseason and showed up heavier (reportedly a full 298 lbs) but leaner. He was measured during OTA's as having 14% body fat. Subsequently I expect a difference in Hardy to show up in two areas.

Where is was a bit of liability in the run game he should be much stouter at the point of attack, something the Panthers sorely lacked last season. Second, look for Hardy to be the DE that moves inside to DT on 3rd and long situations, a move that might not help his sack count but will help in other areas he is strong at. Rick Bates explains, after the jump...

Rick: While I think Hardy is a bit of a nut-case, I also think his ability to harass opposing QBs is about to explode. He admitted that he was pushed around by TEs and Tackle combos last year, so he committed to getting bigger. If his 299 lb, 14% body fat claim is to be believed, then I expect him to bull rush his way to 8 or more sacks this season; as well as improving against the run. His motor (the internal one, not the Bentley), has never been in doubt. I recall him winning sprints by large margins during his rookie training camp.

The motorcycle accident last year kept him out of camp and pre-season, which I think also left him out of shape. Still, he was the best in the league at batting down passes. This season, assuming he doesn't hurt himself again, he should be a real force at DE, and be equally effective moving inside on passing downs. Let's just hope the Kraken goes 100mph on the field, not on the highway.

Outside of Hardy the middle of the Panthers d-line last season was terrible at getting their hands up and obstructing if not blocking the passing lanes. Putting Hardy in the middle on obvious passing downs will provide that ability as well as give us some strength up the middle in the event of the dreaded draw play on 3rd long (we do play the Broncos after all).

Hardy is a bit of a strange bird off the field and he is to prone to doing stupid things like tweeting his speedometer at 100mph. But if he can avoid any further off the field drama he should give Panther fans plenty to watch and cheer in 2012.

His rookie year with zero starts but game action in 15 of 16 games Hardy put up 30 tackles, 3 sacks, a pass knocked down and a safety. As a 16 game starter in 2011 Hardy increased his total to 50 tackles, 4 sacks, a safety and an amazing 11 passes knocked down.

So what might he do in 2012 with hopefully a better cast around him? You might recall Hardy played one of the highest number of snaps for a defender in the entire league in 2011. Though I expect fewer snaps in 2012 due to an improved defense I'm thinking 60 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 safety and another 14 passes defended.

Hardy is one of the guys I'm most looking forward to seeing this weekend at the start of TC. I want to see the guy with DT size but DE speed for myself. Is it September yet?

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