Greg Hardy is odd. That's not a condemnation of his character or ability, just that the Carolina Panthers defensive end is a little different. Now he's poised to hit free agency and a number of teams could be looking at the talented pass rusher. There are any number of questions that could be asked about his potential with a large contract, but the one to ask is: "Is he worth it?"
There's no short answer to such a brief question, because to understand who Hardy is on the field is a lesson in understanding him off it. He's a player brimming with self belief, but largely overlooked for much of his career -- until he got hot at the right time and was thrust into the limelight. The potential was always there, lurking under the surface, but the Panthers learned that the best way to use him is to listen to his nickname, and release the Kraken.
Becoming the Kraken
There were flashes, even in the beginning. It wasn't long ago that Hardy was hailed as the next great NFL defensive end. At Ole Miss, it was believed he would take the next step after a stellar sophomore year that saw him him total 16.5 tackles for a loss and 10.0 sacks. There was a small regression the following year, but scouting circles were in love with the two-sport star. He was long, athletic and violent -- not dissimilar to Julius Peppers. Early draft projections placed him in the Top 10 picks of the 2010 draft; some had him first overall.
Hardy's final year wasn't kind. He took a step back on a struggling defense and his pass rush dried up, he twice had surgery on his foot and suffered a minor injury in a car accident along with then-teammate Dexter McCluster. It didn't matter that the accident wasn't Hardy's fault, it raised questions. He took another hit at the combine by being a mercurial figure that didn't interview well and had a penchant for the dramatic. It pushed him into the sixth round and the Panthers took a flier.
Early hopes were muted. At best he was believed to be a rotational pass rusher with some upside on third down, but his personality rubbed some teams the wrong way. In an era of big money rookies there was risk, that was part of the reason he slid. At no point did anyone believe he could not only take over Peppers' place on the Panthers, but exceed it.
Hardy's rookie season was relatively quiet. A coaching staff with a penchant for veterans elected to start an aging Tyler Brayton over him, but Hardy made the most of his opportunities. He quickly became a fan favorite for his emotion and energy, before long he was given his nickname "Kraken," coined by a user of Cat Scratch Reader, SB Nation's blog focused on the Carolina Panthers.
It stuck. Hardy was dead, the Kraken was born -- that was when things began to change on the field.
Ron Rivera's arrival in Carolina ushered in a new way of thinking. The old adherence to reliable veterans was gone, replaced with a risk-taking approach to roster building. He wasn't "Riverboat Ron" on the field, but gambling became the raison d'être on a team in dire need of a spark. One side of the ball had quarterback Cam Newton; the other was Greg Hardy.
He hadn't become the defensive focal point, but there was pressure -- too much for him to handle. Expectations on the team were at unreasonable levels and Newton alone was supposed to take the Panthers to the proverbial "promised land."
Hardy's box scores showed a paltry four sacks, but there was a beast waiting to emerge. He was constantly just short of making a major impact, generating pressures but not sacks. Paired with unreliable run stopping, it was unclear whether the young defensive end would be anything more than an ancillary piece. But one person believed -- the one who counted.
Rivera remained resolute that Hardy was his guy, refusing to entertain the idea of starting anyone else. The head coach saw potential that needed to be coached up and made it his personal project to assist in the development of The Kraken.
It's here where ego enters the equation. Scores of players have flamed out of the league for being unteachable or thinking they understand the game better than their coaches. It's a devastating trait that's ended far too many careers much too soon. Hardy responded, he "awoke," becoming one of the Panthers' best pass rushers and the defensive line's top run stopper. He could be played anywhere because of his athleticism.
On first and second down he played a traditional defensive end role; on third, he'd move inside to play under tackle. When the Panthers used a 3-4 look, he became a stand-up outside linebacker -- thriving in every position.
The 2013 season brought a new nickname and ebullient demeanor. A private graphic art major became overly active on social media and with fans. The sea change felt forced, guided by a hidden hand. One could speculate it was the input of agent Drew Rosenhaus, making Hardy well aware that he was in the final year of his deal, or perhaps a savvy player realized that his key to success and big money was twofold: Perform on the field, become loved.
Being "The Kraken" wasn't enough for Hardy; everyone on the defensive line needed a nickname. He dubbed the unit "Monstarz Inc," sharing on Twitter and Instagram his blueprint for which mythical beast suited each player and would start being referred to as "Kraken" almost exclusively.
Fans couldn't ignore his interaction off the field, teams could take their eyes off his performance on it. Hardy became one of the league's best defensive ends in a year the Panthers finally returned to prominence. The plan paid off. Lights were brighter in Carolina and he was at the center of the defense, ready to get noticed. A two-pronged assault on free agency began early and every move was played with the precision of Garry Kasparov.
Sunday night football became his canvas, Hogwarts was his paint. Well known around the league, Hardy entered folkloric levels by announcing he was from "Hogwarts" rather than Ole Miss. Sunglasses on, the Kraken had arrived in a way strangely appropriate for an odd character.
A mythical beast from an imaginary school playing on football's biggest stage. Were his 15.0 sacks a myth, too? Recently CBS Sports in Charlotte broke down Hardy's performance in 2013 and found some alarming trends throughout the season. He had a pattern of playing his biggest games against poor competition and shrinking against elite offensive tackles. Two of his sacks came against tight end Tony Gonzalez, and another 10 occurred when he worked against below-average players.
It's a trend that Panthers fans saw out of Julius Peppers from his time in Carolina. When the team needed him the most he often wouldn't be there, only to appear when nothing was on the line to control the pace of the game against bad teams.
Is Hardy destined to become the next Peppers? Highly paid and touted only to fail in being an impact player? The possibility is there, and will be a huge question for teams looking to gain his services in free agency.
Whether he's the Kraken, part of Monstarz Inc. or from Hogwarts, Hardy is one of the league's most intriguing players on and off the field. There's no question he'll be paid; it remains to be seen by whom.
The most telling answer will come from the Panthers and how aggressively they pursue him in free agency. Carolina doesn't have much money to work with, but how it handles a possible contract negotiation will be key is seeing firsthand how highly the organization values its pass rusher. A big contract shows teams he's real; a low-ball offer or franchise tag tips the hand at concerns, a need to see more.
Whichever team Hardy lands on next will gain a character, a player fans rally around and love his energy, but in a results-driven league that isn't enough. Everything hinges on whether Hardy releases the Kraken in Carolina, or if the Panthers release the Kraken to unrestricted free agency; then the games begin.