2014 NFL free agency: Panthers can retain Greg Hardy, but at what cost?

Streeter Lecka

We break down what it would take to keep Greg Hardy and the outlook is not so good.

We've spent time looking over the numbers, explaining why it's near-impossible to keep Panthers sack artist Greg Hardy for market value but today we look at precisely what it would take to keep him based on Carolina's cap situation.

In order to accurately look at the situation we can't waste time on "home town discounts" or any other unlikely frivolity that assumes he wont get paid precisely what some team will offer in free agency. Charles Johnson was given a six year, $76 million deal in 2011 and at equal stages in their career Hardy is more decorated. Therefore, it's assumed he will command a six year, $80 million contract with a $32 million signing bonus.

The cap, as it stands now

Carolina is currently $11.9 million under the 2014 salary cap. They have 26 players scheduled to hit free agency. In order to retain Hardy and still field a team the Panthers would need to be at least $26 million under the cap. This allows for a back-loaded deal that pays Hardy roughly $1 million in 2014, with $5.33 million counting against the cap as amortized signing bonus for a total hit of $6.33 million, give or take a little for workout bonuses etc.

The remaining $20 million would pay the Panthers draft class (around $4.5 million) and keep $15.5 in the coffers to field a roster.

Here's what it would take

Getting to a cap figure of $26 million under is no easy feat. It requires one key player to play ball and give the team some help.

1. Cut Charles Godfrey outright, with a June 1 designation.

This move saves $5 million against the cap

Current room: $16.9 million

2. Try to restructure Charles Johnson

Johnson is set to pocket $9 million this year and his cap hit is $16 million. The remaining salary on his deal is $29.25 million, so the smart move would be to offer a five-year restructured that converts that salary into a $31 million signing bonus.

CJ gets the money up front, guaranteed and it lets the Panthers reduce his salary to the veteran minimum for at least the next two years. This would save $9 million against the cap.

Current room: $25.9 million

3. Cut Dwan Edwards

Making this move outright would save $1.4 million against the cap.

Current room: $27.3 million

Sacrifices as a result

Let's assume those three dominoes fall into place and the Panthers re-sign Greg Hardy. They now have 26 roster spots to fill and roughly $17 million to do it.

Jordan Gross

With $17 million left there's simply no room to keep a veteran of his caliber. Given that he's mulling over the idea of retirement it's wholly unlikely he'll accept the veteran minimum. A realistic deal would be two years at $12 million with a $6 million signing bonus. Back-load that deal and you cause problems for 2015, keep it even and he's a $6 million cap hit.

Assume they keep him: You have $11 million to spend on 18 players.

Graham Gano

A high-level kicker isn't something the Panthers can afford if they want to retain Hardy. Gano is one of the top-tier kickers scheduled to hit free agency and anything over $1 million is too much for the team to bare, and it will be.

Brandon LaFell

Most people don't like him, so what the heck? Retain Hardy, you can't keep LaFell -- it's that simple. He will command more than Darrius Heyward-Bey made from the Colts in 2013, which was $2.5 million against the cap.

Mike Mitchell

Bye.

The Panthers got a great deal in 2013 and he vastly out-performed his contract. Expect an offer in the range of $6-8 million for 2-3 years, which isn't something Carolina can afford.

Ted Ginn

Like Mike Mitchell, it ain't gonna happen. Teams need deep threats and there aren't enough in the league. Factor in his relative youth and additions on special teams and Ginn will command deals around the $3-4 million mark, as a cap hit in 2014.

Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence

Here's two player the Panthers can't afford to lose. You hit a breaking point pretty quickly when releasing players that results in a barely-competitive franchise. Wide receivers can be drafted or signed, getting quality corneback play doesn't happen immediately.

Let's assume the pair counts as $4 million against the cap in 2014 (which could be low-balling).

Carolina now has 16 available roster spots and $7 million to do it.

The good news

Fourteen players leaving in free agency were rotational guys or special teams players. Those can be found for cheap enough to make it work.

The bad news

Under this plan the Panthers lose a grand total of five starters: LaFell, Gano, Mitchell, Bryon Bell and Travelle Wharton.

It means that between a seven pick draft and dwindling free agent money you need to find a starting offensive tackle, wide receiver, safety, guard and kicker. Take a guess how likely that is to happen?

Star-divide

None of this is impossible. The plan outlined above would fiscally allow the Panthers to keep Hardy a field a team in 2014, but it's the cost that needs to be evaluated. If the long-con is to treat Hardy as a franchise cornerstone then it means accepting that Carolina will probably suck in 2014.

A struggling offensive line and secondary gets worse, while Cam Newton is sure to lose weapons. Unless there's some serious luck in the draft the idea of making the playoff again is near-impossible, there's just no quality depth.

The bright side would be, as Dave Gettleman says "a dollar over three dimes." It positions the Panthers to be more competitive when they get out of cap hell, but is it worth it?

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