Rivera: Hard to imagine team minus Hardy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera gave the strongest comments since the season ended on potential plans for defensive end Greg Hardy.

"I know [general manager] Dave Gettleman and his staff are working,'' Rivera told reporters in New York City on Saturday night after winning the Associated Press Coach of the Year award. "We met the other day on our salary cap, and there are some things we have to do, obviously.

"We talked about free agency, but we most certainly would love to have Greg back. He’s a big part of what we did this year. It’d be hard to imagine doing things without him.”

Hardy, who led the team in sacks with 15 to earn his first Pro Bowl selection, is scheduled to become a free agent. The Panthers have the option of placing the franchise tag on the fourth-year player out of Ole Miss, signing him to a long-term deal or letting him test the market.

The latter likely would drive the price too high for a Carolina team that is somewhat strapped under the salary cap.

The franchise tag may make the most sense because the team has 21 players eligible to become UFAs. Hardy said late in the season he wouldn't object to the tag to help Carolina get healthy financially, then look at a long-term deal beginning in 2015.

Gettleman has been vague when asked about Hardy since Carolina finished a 12-5 season with a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in the NFC playoffs.

Asked specifically what his opinion of Hardy and his situation was two days after the season, Gettleman said: "The answer again is right now, we've got to look. We've got to evaluate the whole thing.''

Asked if he could envision next year's team without Hardy, Gettleman said: "Everybody in this league lets players go. There isn't a team in this league that hasn't let a big dog walk out the door, and don't print that I'm saying he's going to go. I'm just making a statement. There isn't anybody that hasn't done that. But again, there is a whole big puzzle we're putting together. And he's one of the pieces.''

Rivera's comment on Saturday night was the strongest indication the Panthers plan to do everything possible to keep Hardy.