Hidden behind the media blackout that was the coverage of Newton’s season was the next in a fine line of Panthers defensive ends. As a franchise, Carolina has a fine heritage at the position featuring such players as Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, and most recently Charles Johnson.
The latest player off of the production line is another SEC product like Johnson who brings outstanding measurables to the position and started to produce quietly in 2011. With his traffic accidents hopefully firmly in the rear view mirror, our Secret Superstar for the Carolina Panthers is Greg Hardy.
Senior Season Letdown
Hardy joined high school teammate Michael Oher at the University of Mississippi and quickly forged himself an identity as one of the best pass rushers in the brutally competitive SEC. In 2007, his second season on campus in Oxford MS, he led the conference with 10.0 sacks and was widely expected to be a top draft prospect whenever he elected to leave Ole Miss. However, after electing to return for his senior season in 2009, he broke a bone in his right foot during the offseason and a disappointing final college year saw his draft stock plummet.
In spite of bringing excellent measurables (6’4, 281lbs) and the performance that he displayed earlier in his collegiate career, NFL teams chose to take an approach of “what have you done for me lately?” The Panthers halted his slide in the 2010 draft with pick number 175, a long wait for one of the premier pass rushers from the premier collegiate conference.
Starting with a Bang
Hardy had his foot in the door but coming from that far down the draft he would have to work hard for an opportunity. His quest for playing time was aided by the void left by Julius Peppers and, in spite of his lowly draft status, Hardy did enough during training camp to earn himself significant time on the field from the start of the season.
In his NFL debut–in the first game played at MetLife Stadium–Hardy registered 30 snaps off of the bench; immediately putting his bulk and length to good use in run defense, he registered three stops and a PFF run defense grade of +3.1, with two of his stops coming at the line of scrimmage. It wasn’t just a workman-like performance though, far from it, Hardy provided splash plays immediately with a forced fumble stripped from Ahmad Bradshaw on a third down play late in the fourth quarter. He even put points on the board in a losing effort on special teams blocking a punt out of the back of the endzone after splitting the blocks of Jonathan Goff and Bryan Kehl at the line of scrimmage.
The only thing that Hardy’s debut lacked was pressure created as a pass rusher as he was blanked on his 10 rushes in that game. He would fix that quickly, recording a hit and five hurries against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2, earning a +4.2 pass rush grade for his exceptional display. That start to the season offered great hope, but neither Hardy nor the Panthers’ defensive coaching staff followed through.
After playing 30 snaps in each of the first two games of the season he wouldn’t play more than 30 in a game again until Week 15 and after his fast start Hardy’s performance dipped both as a pass rusher and run defender. From Week 3 to Week 10 Hardy recorded only three hits and only graded positively in run defense twice.
For the season, though, he registered a total of 400 snaps (fourth-most among rookie defensive ends) and comfortably outperformed every other Panther DE behind Charles Johnson on the depth chart. On fewer snaps he recorded more total pressure than Tyler Brayton and Everette Brown while being one of only two defensive ends (along with Johnson) to grade positively as a run defender. When he got his opportunity at the end of the season, 148 snaps in the last three weeks of the season, he took full advantage, reminding fans of that start to the season. Four defensive stops and an overall grade of +3.3 gave Hardy a head start for 2011.
Seizing an Opportunity
After the departure of both Tyler Brayton and Everette Brown in the offseason Hardy was left almost uncontested for the starting gig that he claimed opposite Charles Johnson under new head coach Ron Rivera. Only three defenders played more snaps for the Panthers last season and Hardy seized the chance to show his full range of skills in his 904 plays.
What he showed was an expanded version of his rookie season, flashes of brilliance but some infuriating inconsistency as well. Displays such as his seven-pressure game in Arizona during Week 1 and a phenomenal display against the Vikings in Week 8 give a tantalizing glimpse of the Panthers’ potential to have one of the best defensive end pairings in the league. But that excitement was tempered by his finish to the season and some dreadful performances in run defenses sprinkled throughout. After finishing 2011 with a grade of -6.7 in his final four games, you have to wonder whether the heavy workload was simply too much for him. Had he stopped in Week 13, his overall grade would have been a mightily impressive +12.9, a ranking around the Top 20 defensive ends in the league.
That can easily be remedied by spelling him more frequently, but what Hardy needs to work on from 2011 is setting the edge on defense against tight ends. Too often in 2011 he was easily sealed inside by tight ends and lead blockers, many of whom are far from exceptional at that job. At his size he should not be getting bullied by tight ends, but his inconsistent play on the edge was a contributing factor to the Panthers having one of the worst outside run defenses in the league last season. He has made plays in his first two seasons against quality edge blockers but the consistency has not been there as he has struggled to strike the balance between setting the edge and attacking the passer within a single performance.
The Next Step
Hardy is more than capable of making the strides necessary to give Carolina an outstanding pair of defensive ends. His eight batted passes were second to only Calais Campbell, more even than Jason Pierre-Paul during the regular season. His 33 QB hurries, albeit on a high number of snaps, were as many as the likes of Terrell Suggs, Dwight Freeney and Jared Allen. If he can only avoid hitting the wall he struck late last season and find that elusive balance between run defense and pass rush, he is primed to explode as a superstar defensive end, not only in his division, but league wide.
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