Crazy thought: If Hardy leaves, get Peppers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here's a crazy thought: If the Carolina Panthers can't find a way to keep defensive end Greg Hardy with the franchise tag or a new deal, consider bringing Julius Peppers back.

Not that Peppers is available -- yet.

But with speculation the Chicago Bears might have to part with the 12-year veteran for salary-cap relief, he could be on the open market.

And since Peppers has had his big payday, he might be willing to return to the team where he spent his first eight NFL seasons and the state where he spent his entire life before leaving for Chicago in 2010.

Told you it was crazy.

But let's say the Panthers deem Hardy, aka "The Kraken,'' too expensive to keep. Let's say Peppers is willing to play for a third of the $18.8 million he's scheduled to count against the Chicago salary cap in 2014.

It might be worth a roll of the dice if Peppers wanted to get back close to where he grew up in Wilson, N.C., and went to college in Chapel Hill, N.C., and where his 81 sacks (2002-09) at Carolina is by far the team's most all time.

At 34, he probably has another good year or two left in him and he could retire where his NFL career began as the No. 2 pick of the 2002 draft. Maybe he could earn a spot on the team's Wall of Fame.

He does many of the same things as Hardy, albeit at this stage of their careers Hardy is the better player. But mix Peppers in with young players such as Mario Addison and Frank Alexander, and it could work.

Again, it's a crazy thought. Nobody from the organization has even hinted this has crossed their mind.

In all likelihood, the Panthers will find a way to keep Hardy. Coach Ron Rivera has said he can't imagine next season without the fourth-year player out of Ole Miss, who had a career-best 15 sacks this season.

"Greg's an explosive player," Rivera told me on Wednesday. "He has some versatility. He mixes well with the other guys. It's a good group of guys that work very, very well together, and if you take out of one of the cogs that works so well with all the other players . . . "

Let me finish: Rivera wants Hardy to stay. He needs Hardy to stay to help Carolina improve on last season's 12-5 record.

And as Hardy said many times, he wants to stay -- if the price is right.

But let's say it isn't. Then the Panthers have to think outside the box.

Peppers would be outside the box. Crazy thoughts usually are.