Can the Panthers Afford Greg Hardy?

Can the Panthers afford to sign their emerging defensive star? - Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

An in-depth look at what Greg Hardy could cost, and if the Panthers will be able to afford him.

How much could Panthers fan favorite Greg Hardy cost in free agency in 2014?

In a word (or two), a lot.

Let’s face it. Hardy, also known as the Kraken, and the leader of MonStrz Inc., is a rising star at defensive end. (And even defensive tackle and special teams, at times.) Even though he was a 6th round pick in 2010 and has battled injury, he is a worthy started on the defensive line, coming off a breakthrough year with 11 sacks, 2 forced fumbles. Looking at advanced metrics by Pro Football Focus, Hardy ranked 13th in total QB pressure frequency in 2012. (If that does not scare you about the Panthers defensive line, think about this: Charles Johnson ranked 5th, and they just upgraded both defensive tackle positions. Yikes.)

He is also a character on and off the field. In a recent Cat Scratch Reader poll, Hardy was overwhelmingly chosen by the fans as the 2014 free agent of choice over WR Hakeem Nicks. His most memorable moments were his "unncessary roughness" on Carson Palmer and telling the Atlanta Falcons fans to kindly remove themselves from Bank of America. (Okay, it wasn’t those words exactly.) If you have not seen them, you have to relive these moments now before reading further.

Wasn't that awesome? Now, for a moment, let’s pretend that Hardy is a typical NFL player that demands market value for his services. Question is, if you were Hardy’s agent, what is his market value? How much will he cost? I took three logical, mathematical approach to determine how much Hardy will cost to sign.

1) Comparing 3 Years of Free Agent Defensive Ends to Greg Hardy

A good place to start is the last 3 years in free agency, and looking at what contracts the defensive ends have signed. Using Pro Football Talk’s Hot 100 Free Agents in 2011, 2012, and 2013, I have listed are the defensive ends that signed, along with their average salary and statistics the year prior to signing. I also used the metric Approximate Value, which is a single number generated by Pro Football Reference to approximate the season value and contributions of a player for a given year, highest being the best.

**Salary information was acquired from Spotrac and stats from Pro Football Reference.

NFL Defensive Ends That Signed Multiyear Deals in 2011 Offseason with 2010 Stats
Player
Salary
(in millions)
Tackles
(Solo + Assisted)
Sacks Forced Fumbles Approximate Value
Jason Babin 6 58 12.5 2 10
Matthias Kiwanuka
(3 gms)
5.5 11 4 1 1
Ray Edwards 5.5 37 8 0 7
Charles Johnson 12.6 62 11.5 0 8
Average 7.4 42 9 0.75 6.5
Greg Hardy 61 11 2 7

Looking at this, you have to believe the Panthers may have overbid for Johnson’s services, offering more than double the next signed DE. Thanks former Panthers GM, Marty Hurney! Using this as a basis, somewhere between $8-12 million sounds about right for Hardy, as he is clearly above average. On to 2012...

NFL Defensive Ends That Signed Multiyear Deals in 2012 Offseason with 2011 Stats
Player Salary Tackles Sacks FF AV
Red Bryant 7 32 1 0 9
Kendall Langford 6 20 0 1 6
Jeremy Mincey 5 57 8 4 10
Mark Anderson 5.25 32 10 2 3
(5 games)
16 11 5 1 3
Kamerion Wimbley 7 62 7 0 7
Average 7.2 35.6 5.16 1.3 6.33
Greg Hardy (2012) 61 11 2 7

Yet another case of one player exceeding everyone else, as Mario Williams signed a monster contract with the Buffalo Bills of $16 million a year, despite only playing 5 games in his "contract year." For comparison, his last full year was 2009, where he put up numbers similar to Hardy. Again, he is above average of the top DE free agents, and deserves between $8-16 million. But 2013 is a bit different...

NFL Defensive Ends That Signed Multiyear Deals in 2013 with 2012 Stats
Player Salary Tackles Sacks FF AV
Glenn Dorsey 3 69 2 0 1
Michael Bennett 4.8 41 9 3 8
Cliff Avril 6.5 35 9.5 0 7
Osi Umenyiora 4.25 42 6 2 3
Elvis Dumervil 5.2 54 11 0 12
Carlos Dunlap 6.6 41 6 4 5
Wallace Gilberry 2.25 24 6.5 1 3
Average 4.68 43.7 7.14 1.43 5.57
Greg Hardy (2012) 61 11 2 7

Despite the quality talent at defensive end available on the market, and the never-ending demand for pass rushers in the NFL, no team was willing to give a long-term contract to a DE in 2013. Bennett, Avril, and Umenyiora signed less than ideal contracts, and the best defensive ends on the market, Johnson and Spencer signed franchise tenders for roughly $11 million for one year.

So what does this mean for Hardy? If these last 3 offseasons were any indication, teams will not pony up double digit annual salary contracts for emerging defensive ends. I have a feeling that if Hardy does indeed seek a major contract, he may not have a suitor.

2) Comparing the Highest Paid Defensive Ends’ Stats and Careers to Greg Hardy

What if we just looked at the highest paid defensive ends, and compared their stats and career arcs to Hardy’s? In this table, I added two new metrics. First, I added columns for Pro Bowl and Super Bowl appearances, which adds tremendous weight to a player’s potential earnings. Also added is a column called Weighted Career Approximate Value, which is another value assigned by Pro Football Reference to capture the contributions of a player throughout their years playing, highest being the best. For example, Julius Peppers scored 115 and Charles Johnson scored 25. Though Johnson arguably is just as good as him, Peppers has put together a longer and larger body of work over his career. Without further ado...

NFL's Highest Paid Defensive Ends in 2012
Player Salary Tackles Sacks FF Pro Bowl Appearances Super Bowl Appearances Weighted Career Approximate Value
Jared Allen 17 46 12 1 5 0 89
Julius Peppers 16 39 11.5 1 8 1 115
Charles Johnson 13 42 12.5 7 0 0 25
Mario Williams 16 46 10.5 0 2 0 47
Michael Johnson 11 52 11.5 0 0 0 21
Anthony Spencer 10 95 11 2 1 0 31
Antonio Smith 9.5 31 7 0 1 1 45
Calais Campbell 8.75 63 6.5 0 0 1 31
Chris Long 8.75 33 11.5 0 0 0 31
Will Smith 8.5 58 6 0 1 1 53
Average 11.85 50.5 9.7 1.1 1.8 0.4 45.7
Greg Hardy 61 11 2 0 0 14

Statistically, Hardy clearly belongs in this club. He is above average statistically, ranking 3rd in tackles, 6th in sacks, and 2nd in forced fumbles. Where he falls short is in his career credentials, with no postseason appearances to his name, and the lowest WCAV of all players. If I had to slot him on this table alone, I think he would be worthy of a $11 million dollar deal, similar to career arc and stats as Michael Johnson, but slightly short of Johnson and Williams.

3) Comparing the Average Salaries of Defensive Ends with Similar Sack Totals and Age In the Last 5 Years to Greg Hardy

What if we looked at players that had similar production and a similar age to Hardy and see what salaries they currently earn? This was the most intense of my research. I basically went back 5 years, looking for DE’s who had similar production when the were less than 25 years old. (I removed all players that are still in their rookie deals, as that would skew the average salary.)

Salaries and Stats of Similar Production Defensive Ends Under 25 in the Last 5 Years
Name Age Year Current Salary Sacks AV WCAV
Mario Williams 23 2008 16 12 10 47
Mario Williams 24 2009 16 9 11 47
Justin Tuck 25 2008 6 12 18 51
Elvis Dumervil 25 2011 5.2 9.5 9 45
Chris Long 25 2010 12.06 8.5 9 31
Michael Johnson 25 2012 11.18 11.5 9 21
Charles Johnson 24 2010 13 11.5 8 25
Charles Johnson 25 2011 13 9 5 25
Cliff Avril 24 2010 6.5 8.5 6 26
Cliff Avril 25 2011 6.5 11 9 26
Carlos Dunlap 23 2008 6.6 6 5 10
Kamerion Wimbley 25 2008 7 4 8 42
Ray Edwards 23 2008 5.5 5 8 37
Ray Edwards 24 2009 5.5 8.5 8 37
Ray Edwards 25 2010 5.5 8 7 37
Average 24.3 -- 9.03 8.9 8.6 33.8
Greg Hardy 24 2012 -- 11 7 14

I think this is the best comparison done so far. Hardy is about average, with slightly more sacks that this group, but slightly less AV. The average salary (for non rookie deals) is $9 million, which sounds about right for Hardy.

Okay, so what have we learned?

So after a ton of research and pouring over dollars and stats, you may be wondering, "What’s the point?" So here are the three major questions surrounding Greg Hardy’s upcoming free agency and my responses:

Will he continue to develop? After watching every single one of his games in the last two seasons, I have no doubt he will take his game to the next level in 2013. Provided he and Charles Johnson remain healthy, Hardy can be counted to produce for yet another year. He is constantly in the backfield blowing up plays, and is position versatile. Skills like these cannot be unlearned, and as he gets older and stronger, offensive lines will have no match for him.

What do defensive ends like Hardy fetch in the open market? If the market is like last offseason, teams simply will not overspend for defensive ends. While looking at production and career arc, Hardy is by and large the same as the young defensive ends listed above. However, the salary range is wide. They are either a) highly paid, like Charles Johnson and Long, b) settling for a moderate salary, like Avril and Dumervil, or c) franchise tagged, like Michael Johnson. So then...

What salary do you predict and can the Panthers afford him? This is the million-dollar question. (No pun intended.) These are the only scenarios I can realistically see, in order of probability:

a) Hardy signs for $7-9 million with the Panthers. In this scenario, the team lets him try the open market. However, he does not cash in like teammate Charles Johnson did in 2011. With no one willing to pay Hardy the salary he is demanding, he settles for a reasonable deal that locks him up in Carolina for a long time. Likelihood: Very likely. The market is just not there anymore, and Hardy genuinely loves this team. He would likely take slightly less for a longer contract.

b) Hardy signs for over $10 million with another team. A desperate team with a desperate front office decides to break the bank and make Hardy their cornerstone player. He appears to be the pass rush this team always has wanted, and may be the missing piece towards offseason glory. I could really see franchises with 2014 cap space like the Raiders, Browns, Bears, and Redskins willing to make such a splash to make him the face of their defense. Likelihood: 50/50. It can happen, all it takes is one team.

c) Hardy signs for over $10 million with the Panthers. Because the Panthers cap space is so tight, the camaraderie amongst the players is so strong, and the love for the franchise is so deep, some players agree to take a lesser salary to accommodate Hardy. Great targets to restructure would be Jonathan Stewart, Charles Johnson and Jon Beason. This also could include Cam Newton being more like Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford, taking slightly less to ensure a better team. (Not like Flacco, cough cough.) Likelihood: Less than 50 percent. All fans would love this scenario, but it takes a lot for players to restructure or take less than they could earn. Brady is exception, not the rule.

d) Hardy is franchise tagged. The Panthers have a disastrous season and decide to blow up the team. They decide to jettison all the fan favorite veterans and retain a young core of players while freeing up cap space for the future. They decide to franchise tag Hardy, as it is the only way to keep him. Likelihood: For the love of God, please do not be true. This scenario presumes a season from hell. If the Panthers have a terrible record, this scenario becomes more and more realistic.

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