The Carolina Panthers made the NFC Divisional playoffs on the back of a strong defense and overwhelming pass rush, but could be poised for problems in 2014.
Defensive end Greg Hardy had a break out season in the final year of his contract, and Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer isn't convinced the pass rusher will be back due to the team's salary cap issues.
Hardy and his agent Drew Rosenhaus want a big contract after Hardy's 15-sack season. Given the Panthers' cap-challenged position, it doesn't sound like he'll get one in Carolina. The Panthers could slap the franchise tag on Hardy, but don't be shocked if they let him walk.
General manager Dave Gettleman was open about the Panthers' problems in his end-of-season press conference. He used the phrase "cap challenged" on multiple occasions, while explaining that when a good, young player leaves, there's often a reason behind the scenes that fans don't understand. Gettleman didn't refer to Hardy directly, but the overall tone was a front office facing difficult decisions.
Hardy has made it clear that he wants to be paid. Initially he made a statement he would take a hometown discount to stay in Carolina, but his song changed following a run to close the regular season that saw the 25-year-old defensive end amass 8.0 sacks in three games. Now he's poised to be the top pass rusher in the 2014 class, provided the Panthers choose to let him go.
A lot hinges on whether the Panthers feel Hardy was integral to their success in 2013, or if the team's defensive scheme helped him achieve season highs. Carolina is already paying veteran defensive end Charles Johnson a large contract and committed heavily to the defensive line in last year's draft. The team also has three developmental defensive ends who had varying degrees of success in Frank Alexander, Wes Horton and Mario Addison.
If Carolina chooses to slap Hardy with the franchise tag, here are the other top pass rushers poised to his free agency.
This story is a cautionary tale for Greg Hardy in his decision to accept a franchise tag. One year ago, Johnson was the crown jewel of pass rushers in free agency following a 11.5-sack breakout year. In 2013, he took a significant step back, finishing with the most tackles of his career but lowering his sack total to 3.5.
Johnson is still young at 26 years old, meaning a team will gamble on him returning to form in 2014.
He's 31-years old, but there are no signs of slowing down for Allen. He just completed an 11.5-sack year, his seventh consecutive 10-plus-sack year, and while he is slowing slightly, there are few players in the league with a more impressive resume.
Allen won't likely command a huge contract, but a veteran team in need of a pass rusher would easily entertain a three year deal.
There weren't many headlines surrounding the Raiders pass rusher in 2013, but he quietly had the best season of his career on a line without a glut of talent. He finished with 6.0 sacks and has a chance to build on that in a new organization.
The top players are rounded out by Arthur Jones, who had a 4.0-sack impact for the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. He doesn't have the same ability as Paul Kruger who left in 2012, but a needy team will find a player with starting potential.