Panthers camp MVPs had extra motivation

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You hear it all the time, how an athlete plays harder and produces more in the final year of his contract because he's playing for his future.

When you add to off-the-field issues that said athlete has to overcome to help his image and marketability, you'd expect an increase in effort.

So it should come as no surprise that the two players Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera mentioned as his training camp MVPs -- at least during the time spent at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. -- were defensive ends Frank Alexander and Greg Hardy.

Alexander has been suspended the first four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. While he has one more year left on his deal, his salary-cap number ($777,563) is low enough that the defensive line-rich Panthers wouldn't hesitate to cut him if he didn't perform at a high level.

Hardy has been found guilty by a judge of assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder, a verdict he is appealing to a jury trial. The 2013 Pro Bowl selection is not guaranteed anything after the $13.1 million he will receive this season as the team's franchise player.

In other words, how both perform will determine their value and where they play next season.

Rivera wasn't surprised by Hardy's effort. Hardy always practices hard, so it would have been a bigger shock had he not done well.

That Hardy was able to main such a high level with legal issues hanging over him doesn't surprise Rivera, either.

"No, I'm not concerned with Greg, because he's able to take what he's able to focus on, and he's focusing on this, and we all know there's nothing he can do about it until the process takes care of itself," Rivera said of Hardy, whose next court date is Nov. 17, with the likelihood of being pushed to 2015.

Hardy never was better than Tuesday's final practice in Spartanburg, dominating the tackles and guards on one-on-one pass rush drills and knocking down two passes in coverage during team drills. He got to one more than 20 yards downfield covering tight end Greg Olsen, the team's leading receiver last season.

Alexander is a different situation. A fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2012, inconsistency has kept him off the field. According to Rivera, that had more to do with his lack of playing time last season than being ejected in the opener after throwing a punch at Seattle offensive lineman Breno Giacomini.

"The penalty is not the concern," Rivera said. "It's always consistency with anybody that we rotate."

It took Hardy into his third season to produce the consistency that made him one of the league's best pass rushers. He went from a combined seven sacks in his first two seasons to 11 in his third and 15 in his fourth.

Rivera would like to believe Alexander's progression has more to do with maturity than playing for his future.

"He knows he made a mistake and he knows he's got to make it right," Rivera said. "And he'll be ready to go when we get out of that four weeks, and we'll go from there.

"For a player that continued to make mistakes like he was for a first-, second- and third-year player, this is about when you see guys; either they're going to truly show or take a back seat to some of these young guys."

Alexander has plenty of young guys breathing down his neck. The Panthers drafted Missouri end Kony Ealy in the second round and signed Mario Addison to a two-year extension averaging $1.2 million. Wes Horton also is playing well.

"No matter how you look at it, whether it's intended or not, the message has been sent," Rivera said.

And no matter how you look at it, the Panthers will benefit from having two players as motivated as their training camp MVPs.