Carolina has some experience making financial decisions about high-priced defensive ends. In 2009, the Panthers used the franchise tag on Julius Peppers to keep him in Carolina for one more season before he bolted in 2010 to the Chicago Bears.
Peppers signed a six-year, $91.5 million deal with the Bears and has since recorded 38 sacks, been to three Pro Bowls and was once a first-team All-Pro.
The Panthers are facing a similar dilemma with Hardy, who just recorded 15 sacks last season and played in his first Pro Bowl. There is, however, one key difference between Hardy and Peppers: age.
When the Panthers tagged Peppers in 2009, the defensive end was 29 years old. He had played in Carolina from 2002 through the 2009 season and was at the apex of his career. Hardy turns 26 in July and is still climbing the upward slope of his career.
The numbers Hardy could put up elsewhere over the next four to six years might be staggering. From age 26 to 30, Peppers tallied 40.5 sacks. Add in two more seasons and that total rises to 59.5.
Hardy could easily eclipse those numbers.
If Hardy is going to do better than 60 sacks over the next six seasons, it would be absolutely insane for Carolina to let him do that for another team. One of the biggest priorities for general manager Dave Gettleman over the next few months is to sign Hardy to a long-term deal.
A long-term deal is really the only real answer. Carolina should forget about the franchise tag.
Hardy rang in the new year by telling David Newton of ESPN.com on Jan. 1 that he would welcome the franchise tag from the Panthers.
I would love a franchise, man. Add another year on my career. Get to play football a little bit longer without a contract. Another year to be in Carolina just to get 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.
The franchise tag will likely cost Carolina a little north of $12 million for the 2014 season. And Hardy is correct: It could give the Panthers time to fix the fiscal mess former general manager Marty Hurney left the team with. But it could also give Hardy a ton of leverage for even more money later.
From 2012 to 2013, Hardy increased his sack total by 37 percent, from 11 to 15. In the prime of his career with the powerful Carolina defense around him taking pressure off Hardy, it wouldn’t be unheard of for Hardy to make a similar jump in 2014.
How much money do you think Hardy could command if he notched 20 sacks in 2014?
Carolina won’t be completely past its financial mess at that point, and Hardy could be hearing about so many zeros from his agent that it would price the Panthers out of the negotiations.
Gettleman has to get Hardy’s long-term deal done prior to the 2014 season, and that’s going to be tough.
Former agent turned scribe, Joel Corry, told The Mac Attack on 610 AM "The Fan" in Charlotte that he believes that the Panthers likely have about $12 million in cap space for the 2014 season and that a long-term deal would probably look very much like Carolina’s other defensive end Charles Johnson’s deal.
The only problem is he’s going to be a very expensive guy to retain and the deal that Charles Johnson got, a couple years ago, averaging a little over $12.5 million a year is probably going to be what he targets or maybe his floor.
Corry adds that current teammates Johnson, center Ryan Kalil and tight end Greg Olsen could be candidates for contract restructuring to help get a deal done for Hardy. There are also 21 unrestricted free-agents-to-be. Some will be allowed to walk while others re-signed at reduced rates to help with the cap.
Hardy has been very vocal in the media that he’s willing to work out a Panthers-friendly deal because he feels a sense of loyalty. This is the perfect time to sit at the negotiation table and pursue that deal while the hometown discount is still on the table.
"That's the guy that gave me a starting position when I couldn't even walk still," Hardy said in regard to him missing portions of training camp in 2011 because of a motorcycle accident and head coach Ron Rivera holding his spot. "So that's my guy. This organization has always had my back when nobody wanted to take a chance on me in the draft."
Sure, signing Hardy to a long-term deal is going to hurt a bit to a franchise that’s already in salary-cap hell. But watching Hardy sack quarterbacks for another team and attend Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl for the next four to six years would be absolute misery.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.