The term “stopgap” has been used frequently this offseason to describe a veteran quarterback who is expected to start one season while a rookie passer learns on the bench. Brian Hoyer, Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub, and Chad Henne have been dubbed as possible stopgap starters for the “big four” rookie quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. But in lieu of a report from the Black and Blue Review stating that the Panthers never planned on signing Greg Hardy to a long-term deal (even before his legal issue, which he was found guilty for last night), I’m starting to wonder if the Panthers are using Hardy as something of a stopgap for Ealy. It’s wholly speculation on my part, but it might be the best move for the Panthers organization.
Before the draft, the Panthers worked out Kony Ealy and seemed genuinely interested in the former Missouri Tigers standout, and I stated at the time that I could only see them drafting him if he slipped into the late second. The Panthers had much more pressing needs at wide receiver, offensive tackle, and corner (in that order), but Ealy would make sense in the second if they liked him enough. This ended up happening, creating a stacked defensive end grouping for the Panthers with the elite duo of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson leading the way.
The Panthers decision to use the franchise tag on Hardy curtailed their ability to replace the likes of Jordan Gross and departed receivers at key positions of need on offense, and it also prevented them from re-signing Captain Munnerlyn or finding a true replacement for their best defensive back. Hardy makes $13.116 million under the franchise tag, so you can imagine that it’s a hefty sum of money.
Dave Gettleman is a thorough planner and one of the most calculating GMs in the NFL, and we definitely saw that when he decided to put the bottom line over sentimentality by releasing franchise icon Steve Smith. I see all the “character concerns” as a load of bunk; Gettleman simply decided that Smith’s production didn’t meet his cost. But it was interesting to see a frugal GM, who took over a team with massive cap issues from a GM with the opposite mindset when it comes to loyalty to key players, give $13.116 million and not show any desire to lock up this star player to a long-term deal. That combined with the decision to work out and draft Ealy makes me believe that there’s something more at play here other than just stocking up on premier pass rushers or his love for Ealy as a player.
I think the Panthers decided that franchising Hardy and making him a stopgap for the young DE, who was once a sure-fire first-round pick on some boards, and there must have been some serious risk assessment here. Franchising Hardy as opposed to letting him go or giving him a long-term deal actually has some benefits that outweigh the cost of giving him $13.116 million for just one season of play.
Although one year is hardly conclusive, let’s just say Ealy has a strong season and looks like a legitimate starter at the position. If this is the case, then the Panthers can simply allow Hardy to walk next offseason and seamlessly place Ealy as the starting DE opposite of another big money pass rusher in Johnson. They’ll have a cheaper and even younger replacement, and Ealy’s Michael Bennett-like upside as a rotating DE or DT (check out how the Seahawks used Bennett last year for some clarification) would be a nice wrinkle for the Panthers, especially since they would still have a very good third DE in Mario Addison. And oh by the way, they gave Addison a two-year contract extension this offseason, which I don’t think is a coincidence.
It’s pretty obvious how things would shake out if Ealy pans out, but let’s just say he doesn’t. Let’s say he flops dramatically as a rookie, whereas Hardy continues his elite level of play as both a pass rusher and run defender. If this is the case, then the Panthers can simply wait for Ealy to develop and find themselves in the same situation with Hardy. If they want him, they can franchise him again (too expensive, but that’s if they want to play the waiting game with Ealy) or get a long-term deal done. If not, then they can roll with Johnson, Ealy, and Addison as their defensive ends with some very strong DTs in between them. Remember, Johnson is locked up until 2017, so there are no worries there, and he’ll continue to be an incredibly consistent pass rusher for the duration of his contract, barring something drastic.
When looking at the Panthers defensive ends, it’s important not to underrate Addison, keep in mind the reasoning for drafting Ealy with much more pressing positions of need available, and it’s also important to remember just how good Hardy is. $13 million is an awful lot of money, but Hardy was essentially worth that kind of money when you look at how much of an impact he made on the entire Panthers defense against the pass and run.Based on his age and other factors, he’ll be at least that good next season, so I’d say it’s worth it to have Hardy for another year and have the security he provides; they know they are going to get elite play out of him.
My flaw in presenting this (I have to admit this fallacy), though, is that the Panthers can adequately evaluate Ealy in one season. But they are also privy to behind-the-scenes stuff, such as their projected growth chart of him, his workouts, his overall tape, and other factors that would allow them to better evaluate his ability and future upside for the organization. This is just an interesting offseason look at one of the more interesting draft day decisions, and it’s one that could pay off big time for an organization that prioritizes having an elite front seven.