Franchise/transition tags: Panthers

It isn't a question of whether the Carolina Panthers want to use the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy. It's whether they can afford to.

Hardy, who had a team-best 15 sacks this past season, says he "would love" the franchise tag if that would help Carolina get its financial issues in order as far as a long-term deal after the 2014 season.

The problem is the tag would eat up about $12 million of an estimated $16 million to $17 million of salary-cap room for a cap-strapped team that has 21 unrestricted free agents.

And the Panthers already have more than $24 million committed to the defensive line in 2014, with $16.4 million of that going to end Charles Johnson.

Complicating issues is that Carolina has to decide whether to renegotiate a long-term deal for Cam Newton or activate the fifth-year option that is now available and deal with a long-term deal later for its franchise quarterback.

As general manager Dave Gettleman said after the season, Carolina won't be clear of its cap problems until after the 2015 season, "the good Lord willing and the creek don't rise."

Gettleman also was noncommittal about whether the team could keep Hardy.

"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," he said two days after Carolina lost to San Francisco in the NFC playoffs.

"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."

Hardy is a big piece. He played end and tackle and occasionally dropped into coverage for the league's second-ranked defense. He led the team not only in sacks but in quarterback pressures. He also was solid at stopping the run.

Coach Ron Rivera recently said after being named the Associated Press Coach of the Year that he couldn't imagine going into next year without Hardy, who has an alternate persona he calls "The Kraken."

Hardy made it clear throughout the season that he would like to return to Carolina, at one point saying he would give Carolina a "hometown discount" if the number was within reason.

The first-time Pro Bowl selection also spent Super Bowl week in New York City making a lot of radio and television appearances to make himself more visible to those who aren't aware of him.

Perhaps that's the reality that, if the Panthers don't use the franchise tag, he'll be able to make a lot more with another team, possibly NFC South rivals Atlanta and Tampa Bay, which are looking to upgrade their pass rush.

Hardy is willing to accept the $12 million a franchise tag would pay, which would be the best option for Carolina if it can afford that.

Whether it can afford that without hurting the rest of the team is the big question.