What Is Greg Hardy Worth?
During a postseason press conference following Carolina's divisional round loss to San Francisco, Panthers General Manager Dave Gettleman -- as is his custom -- avoided discussing any specific player contract negotiations. But not even Gettleman could resist dropping a not-so-subtle warning about the future of unrestricted free agent Greg Hardy. "There isn't a team in this league," Gettleman said, "that hasn't let a big dog walk out the door."
Of course, Gettleman was also quick to say that nothing was certain regarding Hardy's prospects of spending next season in black and blue. After all, it's abundantly clear that the Panthers want to re-sign the All-Pro defensive end after his most productive campaign. The parties were evidently engaged in discussions on a new contract well before the season ended, and according to an October 2013 report from Brett Jensen of WFNZ, Hardy and agent Drew Rosenhaus rejected a 4-year, $32 million extension. And those talks occurred before Hardy finished up his 15-sack season, tying a franchise record, and punched his first ticket to the Pro Bowl.
And the Panthers, to be sure, have every reason to want Hardy back. The team's sixth rounder from 2010 was one of former GM Marty Hurney's rare late-round gems, a former top draft prospect whose stock had fallen after a lackluster senior season at Ole Miss. In his first two seasons with the team, Hardy showed flashes as a rotational defensive end, notching seven sacks and three forced fumbles. When head coach Ron Rivera elevated Hardy to starter status in 2012, he rewarded the team's faith by recording double-digit sacks, proving himself to be a fearsome complement to battery mate Charles Johnson. And after his 2013 season, Rosenhaus will have plenty to highlight during contract negotiations. Here you have a 25 year-old, pass-rushing, All-Pro defensive end -- who can also slide to defensive tackle when needed -- coming off a 15-sack season, and is now entering his physical prime. This is a player who has already been a bargain for the team on a sixth-rounder's rookie deal, he plays an increasingly valuable position, and the Panthers are still in a division where controlling Drew Brees and Matt Ryan is absolutely crucial to the team's playoff chances. And to top it all off, he's become a fan favorite whose "Kraken" persona has elevated the team's national profile. Where's your checkbook?
This is where the "big dog walking" caveat comes in. As James Dator pointed out last week, the Panthers look to have approximately $21 million in cap space for 2014. But that number is going to begin to rapidly erode as the team deals with 24 free agents and sets aside enough room to sign upcoming draft picks. Factor in a potential contract extension for quarterback Cam Newton -- a deal that might run well north of $100 million -- and it gets harder and harder to figure out how the Panthers will conjure up Hardy's "big number."
But what might that number be? Well, one thing is for sure: it will not be $32 million over four years. So who are the comparators?
According to Over the Cap, the highest paid 4-3 defensive end in the league is Buffalo's Mario Williams, who is entering the third year of a $96 million deal ($24.9 million guaranteed). Williams was formerly the No. 1 overall pick by the Texans in the 2006 NFL Draft, and in his six years in Houston he recorded 53 sacks. His season high in sacks came in his second year, with 14, and in his final four seasons with the Texans Williams saw his pass rush numbers tumble every year. The Bills, desperate to add a marquee player, signed Williams to his massive deal following an injury-shortened season in which the former N.C. State star played in five games and notched five sacks.
Is Hardy a more valuable player to the Panthers than Williams was to the Texans? Arguably, yes. For one thing, Hardy is two years younger than Williams was when he signed with Buffalo, and unlike Williams, Hardy boasted huge numbers during the last year of his contract. In nearly every respect, Hardy appears to be a player on the rise -- a vicious pass-rush specialist with several good years ahead of him. Williams, on the other hand, was coming off of two injury-plagued seasons and was two years removed from his last Pro Bowl appearance. At the time Williams signed his contract with Buffalo, he had recorded only two seasons of double-digit sacks over six years, the same number that Hardy has amassed over four. But the converse of that argument is that Williams, as one of the league's better defenders against the run, is a more well-rounded defensive end than Hardy. Williams has collected some impressive credentials on disruption as well, with 14 career forced fumbles. However, it's impossible to view his contract with the Bills as anything less than an overpay. Based on Williams' completeness as a player, his pedigree as the former No. 1 overall pick, and Buffalo's wild-eyed and money-torching obsession with signing Williams once he hit free agency, I doubt Hardy's contract reaches quite that level.
Next up is former Panthers end Julius Peppers, who inked a $91 million deal with Chicago in 2010. Like Williams, Peppers was a high draft pick, and he more than lived up to his billing. The former University of North Carolina standout always had a complex relationship with the Panthers franchise and fanbase, but his production on the field was astonishing. In eight seasons with the Panthers, Peppers recorded 81 sacks and 30 forced fumbles -- both still team records -- and somehow also pulled down six interceptions. Peppers was NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, made five Pro Bowls and five All-Pro squads with the Panthers, and ended up named to the NFL All-Decade Team. Aside from a puzzlingly ineffective 2007 campaign, Peppers was also scarily consistent, recording six seasons of double-digit sacks with Carolina. And Peppers accomplished all this in John Fox's conservative defensive scheme that eschewed the blitz and demanded intensive coverage responsibilities for defensive ends. Panthers fans often griped that Peppers sometimes disappeared during games, but the numbers are irrefutable. Even by 2010, Peppers was generating Hall of Fame talk. Compared to Williams' deal, Peppers' contract with Chicago looks like a bargain, with one catch: Peppers was 30 years old when he signed it. Hardy is five years younger than Peppers was when he suited up in a Bears uniform, and even though it's indisputable that Peppers is the better player, those five years of Hardy's physical prime are worth a bundle.
And the third highest-paid defensive end in the league is our own Charles Johnson, the third-round pick from Georgia who quietly became Carolina's best defensive player. In 2010 -- the first year after Peppers departed for Chicago -- Johnson broke out, recording 11.5 sacks and establishing himself as a premier run-stopper. During that offseason, Hurney -- using desperation tactics that would later be cribbed by the Buffalo Bills in their pursuit of Williams -- rushed to sign Johnson before the free agent could be wooed by his home-state Atlanta Falcons. Hurney lavished a $76 million deal on Johnson, complete with a $30 million signing bonus. The contract was roundly ridiculed then, and it continues to be lampooned today (http://grantland.com/features/bill-barnwell-breaks-worst-contracts-nfl/). And while close observers of the Panthers know Johnson's value, it's easy to understand why his deal seemed (and seems) so out-of-whack. The Panthers signed Johnson to one of the richest contracts in the NFL after the third-round pick recorded one double-digit sack season. In his career, Johnson has put together only two such seasons. He's never made a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro Team. He's never even been a Defensive Player of the Week. But advanced defensive metrics show his value as an excellent all-around defensive end, and it's easy to understand Hurney's frantic attempts to re-sign him. The threat of Johnson escaping to the Falcons -- his childhood favorites -- to play near his family seemed very real, and the Panthers had just watched Peppers walk in free agency. The Panthers simply could not risk a decimated defensive line and the embarrassment of losing another homegrown talent.
But the unintended consequence of Johnson's contract is its precedent, especially within the organization. Why would Hardy accept a contract valued at one penny less than his teammate's deal when Hardy's final contract year was so spectacular? The Panthers can argue all day that Johnson is actually the more valuable player, but there's no denying that Hardy has placed himself in a better position than Johnson was in following the 2010 season. Rosenhaus understands this, and even though Gettleman will surely inform Hardy's agent that a now-fired GM forged that deal, he also has to concede that through Hurney's desperation the organization set a dangerous precedent. And don't forget that the $76 million deal was signed three years ago, so inflation has to be a factor.
The Other Side of Kraken
Can the Panthers mount a convincing argument that Hardy isn't worth the kind of money that Williams and Peppers are banking? Sure. As mentioned, the organization can point out that Hardy is mostly a pass-rusher who has never proven himself to be an elite player against the run. It's a fair argument, but it ignores the fact that sacks have become, by far, the most important metric for evaluating defensive ends, fairly or not.
So what about those sacks? Well, the knock against Williams when he played in Houston was that he did not consistently dominate his competition -- the same criticism lodged against Hardy after a season in which 10 of his sacks came in only three games. To be sure, Hardy's season looks disturbingly less impressive when viewed game by game. Out of 16 games, Hardy recorded sacks in only half of them. And here's the kicker: he notched multiple sacks in only three games. One of them was three sacks against the hapless Giants in a 38-0 drubbing, another was three sacks against the Saints when Hardy feasted on rookie Terron Armstead in his first career start, and finally four sacks against the 4-12 Atlanta Falcons and their Swiss cheese offensive line in Week 17. Take away Hardy's game against Armstead, and the Kraken recorded one -- yes, one -- sack against a team with a winning record during the 2013 season.
So the Panthers are left with a dilemma -- what do you offer a 25-year old defensive end with massive potential and a franchise single-season sack record who nevertheless proved a relative non-factor in half the games he played in his contract year? What would the Atlanta Falcons -- forever in need of a pass-rusher, especially one who knows the NFC South -- offer him? I would think that Rosenhaus would look at Johnson's six-year, $76 million deal as the absolute basement for Hardy's next contract with the Panthers, and factoring in inflation the basement is probably more like $80 million. Based on how defensive ends are being paid around the league, it's reasonable to assume that Hardy and Rosenhaus are looking for a deal closer to what Peppers signed with the Bears, with Hardy's youth offsetting that deal's basis on Peppers' stats and extended history. Even if Hardy is willing to offer his promised "hometown discount," the Panthers are likely faced with a player who will demand at least $85 million over six years, for a year-average value of over $14 million. Even if the contract is creatively structured to balloon after the 2015 season and offer cap relief now, that ballooning would begin to obstruct the assured, lucrative extensions for Newton, Luke Kuechly, and eventually Star Lotulelei.
In short, it seems like a longshot for the Panthers to afford Hardy on the short or the long term with the kind of contract he's seeking. Gettleman likely understands that doling out massive contracts is one of the reasons the Panthers are in the salary cap mess they're currently in, and there's enough concern about Hardy's game-to-game performance to inspire questions about whether an expensive long-term contract is a prudent move. At the same time, the Panthers must understand that one of the biggest mistakes of the Hurney regime was allowing Peppers to walk as an unrestricted free agent without receiving anything aside from a compensatory pick. I would expect for the Panthers to apply the franchise tag of approximately $12 million to Hardy, which would open two options. The first would be to allow Hardy to finish the season on that one-year deal, assuming the team could move around enough money in the short-term to accept the cap hit. This way, the team defers the real decision on Hardy until 2015, and in the meantime gets one additional season to evaluate him.
The second option -- and the option that seems quite likely -- is that the Panthers apply the tag and immediately move towards trading Hardy, while allowing the receiving team a window to negotiate a long-term deal. This exact situation happened with -- you guessed it -- the fourth highest paid defensive end in the league, Jared Allen, back in 2008. At the time, Allen was a fourth-year player coming off a 15.5 sack season and his first Pro Bowl appearance. Sound a little familiar? Allen signed a $72 million deal with his new team, the Minnesota Vikings, while his old team, the Chiefs, received one first round pick (15th overall) and two third round picks. The Panthers would likely demand a similar haul for Hardy, and in a league desperate for pass rushers and few elite prospects in the draft aside from Jadaveon Clowney, there could be plenty of interested partners. For the Panthers, extra picks would allow the team to address pressing needs at wide receiver, the secondary, and the offensive line. That strategy worked out pretty well for the Chiefs. That extra first round pick was used to draft Pro Bowl tackle Branden Albert, and one of the thirds turned into Jamaal Charles. If the Panthers could pull off a similar deal and draft well, it could go a long way to easing the sting of letting this big dog out the door.