With this post, I made the case that keeping Greg Hardy was not only possible, but not all that difficult. The reason is that Gettleman made rolling as much cap money over to next season to afford him the highest offseason priority. (In hindsight, that possibly hurt the Panthers' ability to compete this season, as had the Panthers ponied up a mere $1.5 million, they could have had Eric Winston at RT, which would have been enough to convert on the 1 yard line against San Francisco.) The main objection to my post was that backloading Hardy's contract would set up future cap problems down the line. Such thinking ignores that Hardy's contract would only need to be backloaded in the first 2 years. But after 2014 several huge contracts will come off the books (Steve Smith, Thomas Davis, Charles Godfrey, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams) plus the team will be able to get guys like Charles Johnson and Ryan Kalil to restructure, which would allow them to raise the amount being paid to Hardy as well as take care of guys like Cam and Kuechly. Teams that are good at managing the cap like Cincinnati, New England, the Giants etc. do it all the time ... stagger the big deals so that the most money goes to one group of players right when contracts expire for another group.
But just because the Panthers can do it doesn't mean that they should do it. Looking at the San Francisco game and thinking that the Panthers would have faced a similar fate had they played Seattle, Denver or New England, the Panthers really do need 6 long term starters: 2 on the OL (both at OT), 2 WRs, and 2 guys in the secondary. Yes, with another draft like last year's, the Panthers could get halfway there. I would say that they could get a legitimate big starting WR in round 1, a "better than Byron Bell" RT in round 2, and get a #2 CB in round 3. They may even be able to find contributors at those positions or others (i.e. a backup TE, a safety or an OG in case Kugbila or Silatolu do not pan out) in rounds 4 and 5.
But that would cause an issue: assuming that the Panthers are trying to win a Super Bowl now instead of rebuilding for the future, then they would have to do so with rookies at the positions where experience is the most critical: OT, WR and CB. Not just one rookie at those positions but several, and again not rookies at less critical or easier to pick up positions like TE, FB, RB, RG or 2 down MLB.
Yes, Star Loutelei, Kawann Short and A.J. Klein came in and contributed immediately. But those front 7 players had the luxury of playing along with Pro Bowl/All-Pro caliber players like Hardy, Kuechly, Davis, and (before the leg-whipping) Johnson. They merely had to come in and fill a role: run-blocking and occupying space for Star, being an occasional interior pass rusher in Short, and (in the games that he filled in for Blackburn) be the weakside cleanup guy in Klein. But the guys that the Panthers would draft this year would not be able to merely fit in, but play leading roles.
If the Panthers draft Jordan Rogers, Allen Rodgers or Mike Evans at #28, he would become our #1 WR on day one. Even if Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn benefit from the presence of a reliable possession WR that can still make plays against double coverage - a Hakeem Nicks type player - that is a lot for a rookie on a playoff team. OL? Even more so. Whoever the Panthers would draft in the 1st or 2nd round would be expected to immediately anchor the right side of the OL. And the CB would be the guy matched up in man-to-man coverage against Anquan Boldin, DeSean Jackson, Marques Colston, Larry Fitzgerald, Alshon Jeffrey or Calvin Johnson. And again, the Panthers wouldn't have to rely on one such guy, but all 3 at once. And keep in mind that the Panthers will have to do this with picks that are towards the bottom of each round, not towards the top or middle as in years past. Whoever they get at #28 will either be pretty much a 2nd round pick or someone who drops, and the same is true of subsequent rounds. So had the Panthers been drafting #28 last year, neither Loutelei or Short would have been available, for instance. Guys who were available in those regions: Johnathan Hankins, Bennie Logan and Sylvester Williams. Neither guy had much of an impact as a rookie.
I am not buying the whole "we cannot resign Greg Hardy because he would hamstring our cap" because it is untrue. Nor the "it is something that Hurney would have done", because Hurney's problem was giving big contracts to mediocre/unreliable players and drafting poorly, not giving big contracts to young all pros at critical positions like Hardy and drafting (so far) well. But if you make the case that trading Hardy (the Panthers would trade him rather than letting him walk because the franchise/transition tags give them that sort of leverage, and they could keep him away from teams in the division like the Falcons and the conference, dealing him instead to, say, the Tennessee Titans, who generated almost no pass rush from their DEs and are not in the market for a QB this year, not in the 1st round anyway) would allow the Panthers to acquire veterans that would aid a playoff run now?
Instead of going into the playoffs with a rookie CB, for example, the Panthers could do so with Brent Grimes, who is 30 and won't cost a whole lot. Instead of doing the same with a rookie RT, well Eric Winston will be back on the market and won't cost a whole lot more than the $1.25 million Arizona paid this year. WR or TE? Same deal.
Do that and you get to use your picks - including the potential #1 and #3 that you get in the Hardy trade, though the Panthers really should consider taking less like the Jets did for Darrelle Revis - on the best player available instead of drafting for need, and to ease those guys in slowly. Incidentally, that is the main problem facing the Panthers. It is going to be difficult enough finding 3-4 quality players in this draft when selecting near the bottom of each round as it is. But if the Panthers are determined to, say, get a WR (or even the best from among WR/CB/OT) in round 1 and then getting the best from whatever position that they didn't fill in round 2 and doing it again in round 3 ... it is almost impossible. It is better to get a good player at a position that isn't critically needed (yet) like OLB or TE or C in round 1 than to get a guy at a "need" position and have him perform like the last 3 guys who were taken at #28 overall (Mark Ingram, Nick Perry and the aforementioned Williams .. honestly not very many guys taken at #28 the past several years have had the impact that Panthers fans will want from a WR or OT taken in that spot).
If the Panthers were rebuilding or had a bigger talent base, I would say hold onto Hardy. But since the Panthers are in the curious position of being a viable playoff contender that somehow has so many holes at critical positions, they have to really think about using the $12 million (or even $9 million as my "the Panthers can keep Hardy" post suggested) on 3 short term fixes at those critical spots, which would free them to draft and mold talented longer term projects at those positions.
The Panthers are so close, yet so far, that doing something unusual like leveraging a young, rare talent like Hardy for cap room and picks has to be on the table. It also has a greater chance of working than hitting on 3-4 picks for 2 years in a row and having them play like seasoned vets in their first year or two.