Granted, their financial situation does not bode too well for them, and unless they are able to restructure a few current deals, finding an impact player via trade may be hard.
Of course, David Gettleman and his staff are not ones to discuss front-office strategies or contract negotiations. What we think we know may be a combination of speculations and assumptions. It's been awhile since Carolina has made a significant trade of any sort, as it has used the draft and free agency to build a competitive team.
While the rumor mill involving the Panthers has been relatively quiet, there is one possible trade scenario that is both realistic and ideal.
Carolina could place the franchise tag on Greg Hardy and then try trading him away.
While he is a free agent, it is still possible that the Panthers could deal him. This would only happen if the team slapped the franchise tag on him and dealt him to another team.
Since he would cost a lot of money whether he is tagged (over $12 million) or signed to a long-term deal, this scenario could be the lesser of several financial evils.
Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer reports that even the projected rise in the league's cap number would only give the Panthers $19.6 million in cap room. That means Carolina would not be in a better position to sign Hardy to a long-term deal.
Gettleman says Greg Hardy is "part of the puzzle" but reminds that team is cap-challenged. He'll soon find out if 2014 cap will be larger.— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) February 20, 2014
The suggestion of tagging and trading Greg Hardy has been offered by both Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer and Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk when it came to breaking down Carolina's strategy for dealing with the Pro Bowl defensive end.
Their argument is valid, as it would give the Panthers additional draft picks—one of which will be better than a third-round compensatory pick they would get if Hardy were to sign somewhere else. For a team that is continuing to build through the draft and has one of the best defenses in the league, this kind of trade will allow Carolina to get better despite losing one of the better pass-rushers from last year.
Of course, the move is not so simple according to Person, but it is possible.
The Defense Is That Good
There has been speculation that Hardy's success was a byproduct of a strong defense that could not afford to employ constant double-teams on him. Fellow defensive end Charles Johnson was able to get to the quarterback 11 times this past year.
Carolina led the league in quarterback sacks with 60, and after being with the team for three seasons, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's scheme is taking off.
Anyone who lines up in his defense is capable of blitzing and getting into the opposing backfield.
If Hardy were to be absent from the team in 2014, either through a trade or free agency, Johnson is still capable of picking up the slack. The real question would be whether or not Mario Addison and Frank Alexander could be able substitutes in Hardy's absence. They recorded 2.5 and one sack, respectively, in 2013 as backup players.
Still, neither has yet to show the level of talent equal to Greg Hardy.
With the defense possessing quality interior defensive linemen in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short along with a talented linebacker unit led by Luke Kuechly, it seems as though missing Hardy wouldn't be an overwhelming concern.
The Carolina pass rush is designed to come from anywhere, so theoretically, teams could not focus on one player without leaving someone else in an one-on-one situation. If Johnson is the only legitimate pass-rushing end on the field in 2014, opposing offenses will still have to account for Lotulelei, Short, Kuechly and the occasional defensive back.
In that regard, Hardy is seen more as a luxury than a need.
A Better Return
If Hardy were to sign with another team, the Panthers would be looking at a third-round compensatory pick for the 2015 draft. By tagging and trading him, they could get a lot more out of him in terms of value.
There are teams in need of a solid pass-rusher and a team like the Oakland Raiders may be willing to make a deal if Carolina decided on this particular strategy.
It's almost a given the Panthers would command a second-rounder in this year's draft if they were to trade Hardy—a move that could give them an immediate bump at one of their positions of need. He should be able to net Carolina a solid package of draft picks after putting together two consecutive seasons of double-digit sack totals.
Plus, at 26 years old, he is still young enough to make a significant impact for another team.
Assuming Carolina plays its cards right, it could add another second-round pick to this year's draft. If the Panthers are able to acquire two second-round picks in this year's draft class as a result of a Hardy trade, they would have some great leverage to either trade down for more picks or trade up if they covet a player who may be gone before they are on the clock.
Panthers Can Focus on Future
How do you think Carolina should handle Greg Hardy's free agency?
As noted by Florio, there are still the contracts of Cam Newton, Kuechly and Lotulelei to consider over the next few years as well. Having Hardy off the books would make it easier to lock up the team's last three first-round picks.
In the case of Newton, Carolina would be in a better position to work on his extension this year instead of waiting until next season.
Additionally, the team's future picks in the first and second rounds can be dedicated to finding an exceptional pass-rusher if the tandem of Alexander and Addison doesn't pan out. It could also target a defensive end in this year's draft.
Gettleman needs to avoid the same mistake his predecessor made, and if he can continue to bring in young talent via the draft and solid contributors through free agency, Carolina would be in a better place financially to make a big splash if needed.
Having two defensive ends with high salaries would negate that possibility.
The last thing Carolina would want is to have a defensive equivalent of its running back situation—two players with a lot of money invested into them who aren't justifying their contract numbers.
The latter scenario seems unlikely and it's fair to assume the Panthers' front office will not explore a new deal for Hardy unless Johnson's contract can be restructured. For those who are interested, Johnson's average salary is nearly $12.7 million. Hardy is expecting something loftier than that. According to Person, he could be looking for a new deal in the neighborhood of $100 million.
The Panthers shouldn't be cheap, but when there is so much talent at other positions, it is hard to commit over $24 million a year to two defensive ends.
Of course, that number would be significantly higher if Hardy gets the kind of contract he's envisioning.
Coach Ron Rivera may have told reporters that it's hard to see a Panthers defense that doesn't feature Hardy, but the Panthers have yet to make an offer to him or any of their free agents. If they were to lock Hardy up to a long-term deal, it's unlikely there would be room for a new contract for Captain Munnerlyn or Mike Mitchell.
"The Kraken" may be a fan favorite, but the cost of retaining him may not be worth it. At least by tagging and trading him, Carolina would be able to get something more favorable in return and sit in a better position to build toward the future.
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