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Why NFL Teams Will Covet Panthers DE Greg Hardy in Free Agency

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Why NFL Teams Will Covet Panthers DE Greg Hardy in Free Agency
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Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy is set to enter free agency this offseason. Hardy is coming off his rookie deal, so he will be just 26 years of age starting next season. That makes him a strong candidate for the franchise tag.

Hardy will likely re-sign with the Panthers for a large, long-term deal or he will be franchised. However, at this point neither of those things have happened.

At this point, Hardy is still a priority free agent for many teams. In the current era of the NFL, productive pass-rushers are the next most valuable thing after quarterbacks. Hardy has been a very productive pass-rusher over the last two seasons.

He was drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, so he didn't start as a rookie. Over his first two seasons, he had a combined seven sacks in 16 starts. Since then, he has 26 official sacks in 23 total starts.

Hardy's production peaked last season. He had 15 total sacks during the regular season.

There are a few ways to look at Hardy's production, however. He played on a very talented defensive line that would have prevented opposing offensive lines from focusing on him. He had three games with at least three sacks, but that also meant he had nine (including postseason) games where he didn't get to the quarterback.

Sacks don't tell you everything you need to know about defensive ends, but they do generally give you a good idea of how good that specific player is as a pass-rusher.

Pressure is very important, but with the athletic quarterbacks in today's league, pressure is becoming less valuable. If you don't finish the play, the quarterback can still escape into the flat and make a big play with his feet or his arm. Furthermore, pressure against the best pocket passers isn't as valuable if they have quick releases.

Breaking down how Hardy's 15 sacks came about in 2013 reveals a lot about his talent as a pass-rushing defensive end.

The two most important aspects of sacks that must be understood are who and why. We need to know who Hardy beat on a given play, if he beat anyone at all, and we need to know how he beat them. This allows us to understand if Hardy is a top-tier pass rusher who can beat any left tackle or if he is a limited player who feasted on lesser talents.

Hardy didn't beat any exceptionally talented pass-blockers in 2013. He did beat players in a variety of ways, though.

The Who and the How
Timestamp Players Beaten Speed Rush Bull Rush Other
NYG, Q1 12:02 Will Beatty Yes No None
NYG, Q1 09:15 Will Beatty No No Inside step
NYG, Q2 13:46 Will Beatty No No Throws aside with arms
STL, Q4 01:45 Jake Long Yes No Wins with hands
TB, Q2 00:26 Ted Larsen No Yes None
NE, Q1 08:29 None No No None
TB, Q2 05:08 Donald Penn No No Hesitation
NYJ, Q1 01:08 Brian Winters No No Hesitation
NO, Q1 02:09 Terron Armstead No No Swim
NO, Q2 12:16 Terron Armstead No No Inside step
NO, Q4 04:08 None No No None
ATL, Q1 07:40 Tony Gonzalez No No Swim
ATL, Q2 10:26 Lamar Holmes No No Hesitation
ATL, Q3 03:07 Tony Gonzalez, Steven Jackson No No Wins with hands
ATL, Q4 08:41 Ryan Schraedar, Peter Konz No No Wins with hands

Analytical analysis through NFL.com

Will Beatty, Jake Long and Donald Penn aren't top tier left tackles. They do have enough talent to be good starters, though. Terron Armstead is a physically gifted player, but when Hardy faced off against him he was still adjusting to his new starting role.

Beating tight ends, guards and running backs would be expected of a player with Hardy's reputation.

What really stands out with Hardy is his ability to win in different ways. He isn't overly reliant on his speed or his strength to get to the quarterback. His hand usage is very impressive at times, while his ability to set up the blocker with hesitation before accelerating past him really stands out.

On this play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hardy shows off a number of different traits.

NFL.com

As he does so often, Hardy lines up at right defensive end. He starts the play in a very wide spot, so wide that he is past the outside shoulder of the tight end. Hardy is very quick off the snap and his first inclination is to stay wide.

He does so in this example, but he also takes a hard step towards the left tackle's inside shoulder with his left foot. He then immediately redirects back towards the tackle's outside shoulder.

At this point, the tackle, Penn, is reacting to Hardy. Penn understands that he is playing in space and Hardy started from a wide spot. Hardy is fast enough that his presence alone will make Penn worry about being beaten outside at the snap.

Hardy understands this too, so this hesitation allows him to survey Penn for a moment.

When Penn reacts to Hardy's outside movement by bringing his right foot forward, the young defensive end strikes. At the perfect time, Hardy punches Penn's shoulder with his left hand while accelerating past him inside.

Hardy shows off outstanding balance and footwork, as he plants his left foot across the field to sharply turn towards the quarterback in the pocket.

On this play, Hardy showed off his body control, footwork, timing, arm strength/placement and his acceleration. He finishes the play well against a quarterback with the athleticism to escape the pocket. He may not have beaten the best offensive lineman in the NFL, but he made a very impressive play regardless.

Hardy's hand usage is very impressive. Unlike J.J. Watt, who has a very obvious yet effective swim move, or Aldon Smith, whose long arms are impossible to miss, Hardy's hand usage is very subtle.

On this sack against the St. Louis Rams' Jake Long, Hardy sets up his speed rush with his hands.

NFL.com

Hardy isn't initially in a great position to get around Long, who is moving to a spot that should allow him to set anchor against the defensive end. However, without losing any momentum, Hardy delivers a very strong, quick blow to keep Long from engaging him with his hands.

It's this kind of body control, awareness and physical ability that makes Hardy so attractive. In spite of his less-than-stellar reputation when entering the draft in 2010 and in the early stages of his career, he has put it all together in the last couple of seasons and seems to have the potential to sustain his current level of production.

For Hardy's 15 sacks, he was unblocked on two. He still beat 15 players because he beat two double-teams. More importantly, the average for each sack Hardy made was below three seconds.

Timestamp Players Beaten Attacks Football? Time Elapsed(Seconds) Yards
NYG, Q1 12:02 Will Beatty No 2.6 4
NYG, Q1 09:15 Will Beatty No 3.7 5
NYG, Q2 13:46 Will Beatty No 2.8 7
STL, Q4 01:45 Jake Long Yes 2.9 8
TB, Q2 00:26 Ted Larsen No 3.2 10
NE, Q1 08:29 None No 2.4 4
TB, Q2 05:08 Donald Penn No 3.2 9
NYJ, Q1 01:08 Brian Winters No 3.0 6
NO, Q1 02:09 Terron Armstead No 3.1 11
NO, Q2 12:16 Terron Armstead No 2.8 9
NO, Q4 04:08 None No 2.9 5
ATL, Q1 07:40 Tony Gonzalez No 3.0 3
ATL, Q2 10:26 Lamar Holmes No 2.5 6
ATL, Q3 03:07 Tony Gonzalez. Steven Jackson No 3.6 7
ATL, Q4 08:41 Ryan Schraedar, Peter Konz No 2.5 6
Total 15 1 44.2 100
Averages 1 .07 2.95 6.67

Analytical Analysis through NFL.com

How long it takes you to get to the quarterback is very important. It tells you if a player is reliant on his secondary to get coverage sacks. When considering time, especially when breaking down average, we must also consider the impact of unblocked sacks.

For example, in 2012, five of Rams defensive end Chris Long's 12 sacks were unblocked, so his 2.93 average per sack is less valuable than Hardy's 2.95 average.

Averaging under three seconds per sack is an incredible feat when you finish the season with 15 sacks and have only two that didn't require you to beat a block. Once Hardy benefited from a blown assignment and once the quarterback ran into his arms.

Excluding Long, because of the unblocked sacks, Hardy was faster to the quarterback on average per sack than all of the top rushers in 2012.

Hardy's longest sack took 3.7 seconds. That is a testament to how little help he received from his secondary. If the defensive line didn't quickly get to the quarterback, the ball was coming out. Even if Hardy was benefiting from playing on a strong defensive line, a line he was part of, he wasn't benefiting from his situation as a whole.

Only two of Hardy's sacks gave him more than 3.3 seconds to get to the quarterback. That is nothing short of incredible.

It obviously speaks to his quickness and burst off the edge, but more importantly it projects very well for his production if he lands on a team that has a better secondary than the Panthers did in 2013. The Panthers secondary in 2013 was one of the worst in the league individually, so finding a better landing spot shouldn't be hard.

As a speed-rusher, Hardy's greatest flaw is his inability to force fumbles. He doesn't attack the football despite often coming from the blind side.

Hardy noticeably attacked the football only once, against the Rams when he forced a fumble. With 11 of his 15 sacks coming from a right defensive end spot and eight of his sacks coming after he went outside the left tackle's outside shoulder, you would expect Hardy to force more fumbles.

That may be nitpicking, but Hardy is going to be paid a huge amount of money regardless of where he plays next season. He needs to maximize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. Sacks are better than pressure, but turnovers are even more important than sacks.

Even though he wasn't forcing turnovers directly, eight of Hardy's sacks did end drives as they came on third or fourth down. Six sacks came when the Panthers were playing with a lead and six more came when the game was tied.

Curiously, Hardy had only three sacks in the fourth quarter, and one of those came with Carolina playing from behind. A large number of his sacks came in the first and second quarters. There isn't much to learn from that, but it is a rather peculiar number because one would expect most pass-rushers to be more productive in the second half of games when their teams were playing with a lead.

Hardy can learn to become better at attacking the football. It's something that he can learn from coaches as he develops. It's also an aspect of his game that is less important than his all-around ability as a pass-rusher. While his speed is evident by the numbers, his ability to bull rush blockers shouldn't be overlooked.

On four of his sacks, Hardy lined up as a defensive tackle. Three times he played on the right side of the line and four times he played on the left side. For one sack he used a swim move, another saw the quarterback run into him and the other he beat the pass-blocker by using his hands.

The final sack was the bull rush. 

NFL.com

Against Ted Larsen of the Buccaneers, Hardy was able to drive him back by initially extending his arms and getting into his chest. He maintained his balance and concentrated all of his power into his arms. This knocked Larsen off balance to the point where Hardy could easily slide inside of him to sack the quarterback.

The 175th selection of the 2010 draft is a very special edge-rusher. Furthermore, he is a very aggressive run-defender who plays with discipline and technique. He may end up being overpaid in free agency this year, but his production to this point isn't a result of anything outside of his own ability as an individual.

Previous production doesn't predict future potential, but such an examination can give you an idea about where Hardy's career is going.

He should be a cornerstone of whatever defense he winds up on.

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