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Panthers made right move keeping Greg Hardy

The Carolina Panthers have found a way to keep Greg Hardy for the 2014 season, and that was the right thing to do.

The team used its franchise tag on Hardy on Friday, about 72 hours before the NFL deadline to do so. They protected themselves by doing that, ensuring that the one scenario that absolutely couldn’t happen wouldn’t happen: Hardy walking out the door with no compensation due the team.

There were lots of points and counterpoints to this argument, but there was a simple reason why the Panthers had to do this. If they let Hardy go as an unrestricted free agent, they would then have to embark on a desperate search to find his replacement.

A few days ago, I was talking to a former Panther who keeps close tabs on the team and speaks to current players a lot. We were discussing this issue. I said basically the same thing to him – that the Panthers would have to replace Hardy immediately if they parted ways. The former Panther laughed and said: “Ha! There’s no way they find another rusher like that if they let him go. Absolutely none. Forget that.”

He was right. Hardy is a relentless pass-rushing force at right end – one of the top five players on the Panthers team. And he makes Charles Johnson better at left end because opposing teams don’t know where to concentrate their blocking. Those two together have 49.5 sacks over the past two seasons, tied for the most in the NFL by a tandem.

Hardy tied Kevin Greene’s team record with 15 sacks last season. He also was around the quarterback a whole lot more than that, leading the team with 38 quarterback pressures. He’s still got work to do – Hardy was not a factor in the San Francisco playoff loss – but he bleeds talent.

The ideal thing now is to use the time the franchise tag grants the Panthers to sign Hardy to a long-term deal. The immediate salary-cap hit would be less stringent, and the future would be less blurry.

I know Hardy wants an awful lot of money – we’re talking eight figures per season, enough to make any NFL general manager gulp. But he is 25 and in his prime. And he’s had 26 sacks the past two years. First, you put a lot of “good conduct” clauses in the contract – Hardy’s personality is legendarily quirky, and you can’t afford for him to get into another motorcycle accident. And then you sign him up for 5-6 years instead of just one.

But if you have to rent him for a year with that franchise tag, so be it.

The least ideal scenario would be for the Panthers to pull a “tag and trade” – using the franchise tag on Hardy but then trading him to someone else more inclined to pay him. I don’t like that option, but at least the Panthers would get something for him. There’s no way you just let him leave like left tackle Jordan Gross earlier this week. (And you don’t let Steve Smith go, either – he needs to play at Carolina in 2014 – but that’s another story).

Remember how important Dennis Rodman was to the Chicago Bulls in the late 1990s? He had a wild personality, too, but Michael Jordan tolerated him and the Bulls thrived in part because Rodman was the best rebounder in the NBA. Hardy is much the same way. You keep Hardy in Charlotte because after you get past all the “Kraken” alter-ego, weird-contact-wearing stuff, he gets to the quarterback.

As Coach Ron Rivera said last week: “One thing you always want to try to do is keep your strength strong. Our defensive line was very strong for us.”

It will be again. The Panthers are built around their defense, which was ranked No. 2 in the NFL last season in points and yards allowed. Seattle was No. 1 in both categories, and look where that got the Seahawks.

If Hardy had left, there was no way this would remain a top-3 defense.

Releasing the Kraken in the winter made no sense.

You pay the Kraken, and then you cage him until September. Then you let him loose, watch him run around Bank of America Stadium and consider it money well-spent.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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