Can the Panthers afford Greg Hardy's 'big number'?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It might be time to prepare for life without the Kraken.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy is being refreshingly honest about his approach to free agency, but that doesn't mean it's good news for the team.

Hardy spoke candidly to reporters Wednesday, and in a piece by Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer the defensive end isn't beating around the bush.

"It's all about the numbers with me. I don't really have an end game to where I want to hustle or play around or play the market," Hardy said. "I want a big number that I worked for, nothing imaginary. And if you don't believe me, tell me what you want me to do and I'll go do it for you. And then give me my number and we'll be good."

Having a breakout year in the final year of a rookie contract is a dream scenario for a player looking to earn a huge deal. Ron Rivera joked that the Panthers plan to hold Hardy to his offer of a hometown discount, but that opportunity could be gone as Person correctly asserts.

Two weeks is a drop in the bucket, but Hardy's two-game run has been the best of his career -- registering 10 tackles and seven sacks against the Saints and Falcons. Add in a Pro Bowl berth and he's moved from intriguing available pass rusher to arguably the most coveted defensive player in free agency.

News doesn't get much better from here. Spotrac is projecting a six-year, $82 million contract for Hardy, which is fiscally impossible for the Panthers to meet. Furthermore, Spotrac's projection came before the season, meaning it's likely he'll command anymore.

Now is probably about the time you should mentally prepare yourself for life without the Kraken. Cam Newton is going to be due a contract extension around the corner, and thankfully no fewer than seven other defensive players registered 3.0 sacks or more in 2013. It's not perfect, but the talent is there to mitigate the problem.

Letting Hardy walk in free agency would be the worst move for the team. It would be tantamount to letting Julius Peppers walk in 2010, which all Carolina showed for it was a compensatory third round selection that was spent on Sione Fua.

The most likely scenario is a one-year franchise tag, and see what can be shuffled around from there. An idea Hardy isn't averse to.

"I would love a franchise, man. Add another year on my career," Hardy said. "Get to play football a little bit longer without a contract, another year to be in Carolina to give them a chance to get their fiscal responsibilities in order so we can be here forever like Steve (Smith) and a lot of other guys, like Thomas" Davis.

It's a problem that extends beyond "fiscal responsibility." Charles Johnson's contract is set to balloon from $8.7 million to $16.4 in 2014, while Ryan Kalil adds another $4 million onto his. These wont get better either, especially with Newton's impending contract in 2015.

The second-best move would be to franchise Hardy, draft a promising pass rusher early in the draft and buy a year of on-the-job training. It would ensure the Panthers were competitive in 2014, while setting up their future.

Trading Hardy prior to the draft is the absolute best move for the Panthers given the likely outcomes. Carolina can't afford to gut the team in order to pay another elite pass rusher, and the New York Jets showed that there is plenty of room for a team to deal an elite defender on a franchise tag. They received a first and fourth round pick for Darrelle Revis is 2012, opening the door for a similar trade.

There's only one Jadeveon Clowney in the draft, and numerous teams in dire need of a signature pass rusher. Netting another first round pick, even in the back-end of the round is preferable to nothing at all. It's a tough decision, but likely the right one -- provided the compensation is right.

Re-signing Hardy to the mega deal he deserves is acknowledging that he is a vital franchise cornerstone, and the piece needed to ensure the team can be competitive. That's a hard argument to make in a defense where everyone is thriving. Is the reason for the Panthers' shift from 7-9 to 12-4 the addition of 4.0 sacks from Hardy, or finally the presence of reliable defensive tackles?

Dave Gettleman is about to make his toughest decision, and over-paying Hardy would simply be a return of Marty Hurney freakonomics.

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