Carolina Panthers Free Agents: Who Is in Play for the Franchise Tag?

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Carolina Panthers Free Agents: Who Is in Play for the Franchise Tag?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Greg Hardy played well enough to earn a great pay day but will most likely be hit with the team's franchise tag this offseason.

The Carolina Panthers have seen their season come to an end, and it won't be long before the NFL offseason officially begins. Prior to the draft, the Panthers will be looking at which of their free agents they will want to bring back for the 2014 campaign. Carolina has a lot of talent that will be entering free agency, and while a few players have already expressed interest in returning to the team next season, the financial aspect could prove to be a problem.

Sometimes this can be resolved by applying the team's franchise tag to a high-value player in order to keep them on the roster. Of Carolina's 28 free agents entering the market in the offseason, only one looks to be a viable candidate to receive the tag. This year, the player most likely to fit the bill is defensive end Greg Hardy.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Hardy delivered his best season to date, and he made the most of his contract year. During the 2013 season, he appeared in all 16 games, recorded 65 tackles and registered 15.0 sacks. He did a great job following up his breakout season of 2012 and should be rewarded handsomely for his contributions. However, the Panthers are still financially handicapped by their large contracts, and with the team looking to extend Cam Newton to a longer deal, using the franchise tag on Hardy makes sense.

The franchise tag can be a tricky issue. Some players have no problem with it, while others would prefer to be signed to a long-term deal. Fortunately for Carolina, Hardy seems to have no problem with the possibility of being tagged in the offseason.

In a recent article from ESPN's David Newton, Hardy explained why he had no problem with the tag.

One year to get the bank right, one year to get the team right, another championship, you never know. A year is a long time. I live on three seconds a play, man.

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Either way, Hardy will get paid in 2014.  Last season, defensive ends who were placed under the franchise tag earned an average $10.984 million for one year of service, according to Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport.  This year's projection could be slightly higher.

Considering the huge contracts that remain on the books, Hardy's optimistic outlook could work out for the Panthers. They still have a lot of money tied up in their running backs at nearly $90 million, and the lack of production is making that investment look terrible.

For the 2013 season alone, the combination of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert accounted for $10.04 million and totaled 1,384 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.  Those annual salaries will only get bigger going into the next season and the one after that.  

The last thing the Carolina front office needs to do is put itself in a position where it has no room to sign anyone or retain key players.

Hardy will command a huge contract, and while he is willing to take a hometown discount, he still figures to see a lot of green coming out of his next contract. Carolina will most likely stand pat on offering him a new deal until a year from now. As of now, the team cannot afford him at the price he expects. This is where the application of the franchise tag will benefit all parties.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

To put things in perspective, fellow defensive end Charles Johnson signed a six-year deal in 2011 that was worth $76 million. Over the past two years, he has tallied 76 tackles and 23.5 sacks. Over the same time frame, Hardy has 126 tackles and 26.0 sacks. Needless to say, the man affectionately known as the Kraken looks to be the team's highest-paid player in the very near future.

Still, that is a lot of money to invest into two players.

There is still a lot of work for the Carolina front office in the upcoming weeks. The free-agency period begins March 11, and there should be a good idea of what the Panthers plan to do with the franchise tag. It wouldn't be surprising to see Hardy placed with tag on Day 1.

All stats were provided from ProFootballReference.com and contract information was provided by Spotrac.com.

As always, you can follow me on Twitter.

  

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