Panthers couldn't afford not to keep Hardy

A question throughout the NFL offseason has been whether the Carolina Panthers could afford to sign defensive end Greg Hardy to a long-term deal or use the franchise tag on him.

The question should have been could they afford not to?

That was answered on Friday as Carolina placed the franchise tag on their 2013 sack leader, guaranteeing him about $12.5 million in the upcoming season. It was amplified by general manager Dave Gettleman saying the two sides would continue to work towards a long-term deal.

This was a move that had to get done.

This was a move that ultimately is a bargain for Gettleman as he attempts to take Carolina to the next level with limited room under the salary cap.

Hardy, 25, likely would have drawn $15 million or more a year had he been allowed to hit the open market. There's no way the Panthers could pay that without damaging the rest of the team.

There's no way they would.

The $12.5 million he will count leaves roughly another $12 million for Carolina to use on other players if the cap is set at around $133 million as has been reported.

Now you've got the entire front seven of a defense that ranked second in the NFL overall and first in sacks intact. Now you can focus on improving the secondary and getting more weapons for quarterback Cam Newton on offense.

But before any of this could be done, Hardy had to be secured.

As much as Luke Kuechly is the leader of this defense, Hardy makes it special. At 6-foot-4 and 290-pounds, he has the unique ability to play both end positions, tackle and drop into coverage.

Some will argue that he wasn't consistent enough, noting seven of his team-best 15 sacks came in the final two games against New Orleans and Atlanta. Let me remind you, those were big games, two Carolina had to win in order to win the NFC South and secure its first playoff spot since 2008.

Nobody said Peyton Manning's league-record 55 touchdown passes was less significant because he had only one in the Super Bowl but seven in the season opener against Baltimore.

Bottom line, Hardy is a beast.

He really is "The Kraken.''

When he puts on those dark contact lenses, smears black paint all over his face and puts on the pads he becomes one of the best pass-rushers in the league. Beyond his 15 sacks, he had 38 quarterback pressures, 17 more than anybody on the team.

He's a big reason the Panthers had 12 players with at least two sacks. When he doesn't get to the quarterback, somebody else often does.

Beyond what he does on the field, Hardy is refreshing. He says what many are thinking but are afraid to say, such as wanting to be paid what he's worth so he can buy that big fancy car he's always wanted.

With $12.5 million, he can buy two fancy cars.

Maybe three.

And throw in a Kia.

That he embraces the franchise tag that many NFL players shy away from also is refreshing. He wanted to remain loyal to the organization that has been loyal to him since the 2010 draft.

"Yeah, it's cool,'' he said in the brief moment I talked to him after the tag was announced. "I'm happy with it.''

Some may make fun of Hardy's alter persona, but the best interview of most game weeks comes when Hardy goes into "Kraken'' mode. And look at the national attention he brought the organization when he introduced himself as "Kraken from Hogwarts'' on Sunday night football.

Wearing dark sunglasses, no less.

But behind those sunglasses and persona is a smart player with a work ethic second to few. That he embodies "The Kraken'' is almost endearing.

"It doesn’t get old,'' he said in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Robert Klemko during Super Bowl week in New York. "You have to sell it. You’ve got to be what you’re saying you are. You’ve got to embody that life, because if you don’t, it will fall to the wayside. So what I did was make it a part of my life and then lived it.

"People say I’m different, but you can’t put it all on the line and deal with all of this pressure without an outlet. When I start feeling that pressure -- I’ve had five surgeries -- I’m thinking, 'What am I going to do to feed my family?' The Kraken is kind of like putting on a mask -- a secret identity. It helps you out. I’m growing to love it.''

The Panthers have grown to love Hardy.

And in the end, they couldn't afford to move on without him.