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Carolina Panthers still discussing long-term deal with Greg Hardy

The Carolina Panthers remain in discussions with defensive end Greg Hardy about a long-term deal, and they hold a trump card – at least for a few more days – in the form of a franchise tag.

The Panthers met recently with Drew Rosenhaus, Hardy’s agent, and the two sides have had ongoing negotiations, according to two league sources. Hardy is looking for a contract commensurate with his place among the league’s best pass rushers after totaling 26 sacks over the past two seasons.

Hardy, 25, who is among this year’s top free agents, told reporters in January he wanted a “big number” if he signed a multiyear deal. Most industry experts believe he could draw a deal worth an average of $12 million to $14 million per season, with as much as $25 million in guaranteed money, if he hits the open market.

The franchise tag for defensive ends is expected to approach $13 million this season. The deadline for teams to use the tag is 4 p.m. Monday.

The Panthers recently restructured the contracts of three players – center Ryan Kalil, running back Jonathan Stewart and linebacker Thomas Davis – to clear $7.25 million in cap space. The moves left the Panthers about $21 million below the cap – if it’s set at $132 million – and might be a precursor to tagging Hardy.

At the scouting combine last week in Indianapolis, general manager Dave Gettleman was noncommittal when asked whether the Panthers planned to use the franchise tag.

“Every team is going to use everything in their bag to get it done,” Gettleman said. “So who knows? I don’t know.”

The Panthers already have a lot of money tied up in the defensive end position, with Charles Johnson set to make $8.75 million this year. Johnson, who is also represented by Rosenhaus, carries a team-high cap figure of $16.42 million, which makes him a candidate to restructure.

Coach Ron Rivera said Hardy is a critical part of the league’s second-ranked defense and is hopeful the Panthers hang on to him.

“He’s important. As I’ve talked to Dave about all the different things we’re trying to do, one thing you always want to try to do is keep your strength strong,” Rivera said at the combine. “Our defensive line was very strong for us. So I’m very optimistic about what we can become as a football team.”

Hardy is the most expensive piece, but he is not the Panthers’ only priority among their 20 free agents.

They will look to lock up wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and free safety Mike Mitchell, both of whom played on one-year deals last season. The free agency period will begin March 11, although free agents can start talking to other teams March 8.

Mitchell tied with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly for the team lead with four interceptions, and brought a physical presence to the back end of the defense.

In addition to adding a big-play threat to the return teams, Ginn became Cam Newton’s favorite downfield target. Ginn, entering his eighth season, caught five touchdown passes and averaged 15.4 yards a catch – both career highs.

The Panthers also will try to re-sign kicker Graham Gano, who made 24 of 27 field goals last season and had the NFL’s highest touchback percentage (77.8) since 1994.

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson and No. 2 tight end Ben Hartsock are viewed as priorities, but will likely have to take one-year contracts.

Carolina is expected to let free agent receiver Brandon LaFell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn test the market, but could ultimately re-sign them to shorter, team-friendly deals. That happened to Munnerlyn last year when he turned down a three-year offer and eventually agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.1 million.

Offensive linemen Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner, both free agents, could decide to follow Jordan Gross into retirement.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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