The Panthers applied the franchise tag to defensive end Greg Hardy. The tender for defensive ends is $13.116 million.
"We are very pleased that Greg will be back with the Panthers next season," head coach Ron Rivera said in a statement released by the team. "He was a big reason we were able to lead the league in sacks last year and keeps our defensive line intact."
Hardy, 25, had 15 sacks in 2013 and 11 in 2012.
"The franchise mechanism gives us time to secure the services of a very good player while we continue to look at the future of Greg with the Carolina Panthers," general manager Dave Gettleman said in a statement. "We have had great dialogue with both Greg and his agent. It was important to keep our defensive front together."
Hardy then wasted no time and signed his tender March 4, making the deal guaranteed.
After signing the tender, Hardy said, "We're going on good faith like we have been this whole time. People have been talking trash about me, talking about blah, blah, blah ... (I want) bucket loads of cash. Oh, I'm not coming back. I'm full of crap.
"I signed a tender like I said I would. You're really 100 percent incorrect if you don't think I'm excited about $13.1 (million)."
In refusing to complain about being a franchise player, he added, "It's a lot better than a million dollars. It's a lot better than no million dollars. I'm pretty excited about it. It helps that I'm a sixth-round draft pick and ain't got no money. It's pretty cool to be the guy they waste a franchise tag on, because you've only got one.
"I could see the dislike in it. You don't get the deal and you do have to play out your thing, but that's what I've been doing for four years. I'm used to it."
--For the majority of their existence, the Carolina Panthers have been one of the most loyal organizations in the NFL. While that's a commendable trait, it doesn't help you win.
Loyalty to veteran players has led to unwise contracts and younger guys not getting a chance. But a massive change could be coming to Carolina, one that could stun a fan base that has largely been shielded from the business side of pro football.
While whispers about the move have been swirling around in some circles the last few weeks, the possibility became real when general manager Dave Gettleman was asked about wide receiver Steve Smith's roster status Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"Steve's had a great career, he really has," Gettleman said, before adding lines that, if you were paying attention, made your ears perk up: "None of us are here forever. He's part of the evaluation process and that's just the way it is."
"None of us are here forever?"
"He's part of the evaluation process?"
The first line sounds like a potential door closing.
The second make you think - When did Smith become just another guy the coaches had to evaluate after the season?
But after 13 seasons, and a year when his receiving yards took a nosedive, this may be the new reality in Carolina. Sure, Smith's still the best receiver on a roster without very many, but Gettleman has made it clear status quo is not a winning formula.
On Friday, Ron Rivera said the 34-year-old Smith can still be dynamic, but the head coach followed Gettleman's lead by avoiding a solid commitment to the Panthers' longest-tenured player.
"Steve is part of what we're doing going forward," Rivera said. "How big of an impact he's going to have for us is going to be determined as we go forward as we go through this draft process and through the free agency, so we'll see."
With three years left on his contract, Smith is owed $4 million in base salary in 2014, with a possible $3 million roster bonus. In the scheme of things, those are modest numbers, but the cap-challenged Panthers could be focused on the $7 million cap hit they would take on Smith next season.
A restructuring is certainly possible, but so is a clean break. It's not something Smith or Panthers fans have thought possible, but the days of seemingly unending loyalty are gone.
The role of a general manager is to build a team that can win. Gettleman and Rivera's roles, more specifically, are to build a team that can win consistently. Doing either is neither easy nor pretty.
Uncomfortable decisions can be ugly at first, but they're necessary in the NFL, even if they mean a change in what loyalty necessarily means.
Speaking of that loyalty, Smith reacted to Gettleman's words, telling WBT Radio, "To be honest, I'm not really sure what to make of it. That's the first time I heard that being said. I wish I would have been afforded an opportunity to be given a heads up from our GM.
"The unfortunate part is, I had to hear it second hand. No one spoke to me face to face. It's a little discouraging. I guess as they say it's part of the business."
--Panthers tackle Jordan Gross is retiring after 11 NFL seasons, the team announced Tuesday (Feb. 25).
The 33-year-old Gross spent his entire career with the Panthers, starting a franchise-record 167 games. He reached the Super Bowl in his rookie season with the team in 2003 and was named to three Pro Bowls, including the 2014 game.
Gross made an official retirement announcement on Wednesday.
"I knew that this was the time for me to step away: happy, healthy and thinking fondly about my experience," Gross said on the team's website. "I didn't want to leave until I felt the team was back in a good position for sustained success. The team is there now."
According to The Charlotte Observer, Gross planned to play in 2014 but a restructured contract was set to void this month and he did not want to become a free agent and move to another team. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said last week that Gross mulled a return before making the decision.
"I've been to a Super Bowl. I've been in the Pro Bowl. I've won the division. I've been 2-14. I've been carted off the field. I've been celebrated off the field," Gross told the Observer. "I've had almost everything happen to me that can happen, short of winning the Super Bowl. I feel like I'm a very content person."
--When the Panthers exercised 2014 and '15 options on linebacker Thomas Davis' contract last week, they restructured his deal in the process so it is more salary-cap friendly, the Charlotte Observer reported.
The restructured deal created cap space by adding three voidable years onto the back end of the deal. The extra years spread out Davis' cap hit. The contract options gave Davis a $5 million bonus and reduced his salary for this year to the veteran's minimum of $950,000, cutting $3.25 million off his cap figure.
Thomas successfully came back from three torn ACLs that limited him to nine games from 2009-11. In 2013, he played all 16 games and had 123 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and eight pass breakups.
Carolina would like to re-sign defensive end Greg Hardy and possibly restructure the contacts of defensive end Charles Johnson and center Ryan Kalil, according to the Observer.
--Highly-regarded Auburn tackle Greg Robinson will likely be off the board if the Panthers stay at No. 28 in May's draft, but that doesn't mean he hasn't thought about playing with Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
When asked if he knows the former Auburn hero who led the Tigers to the 2010 BCS title, Robinson beamed while describing a workout he shared with Newton when he returned to campus last offseason: "It just felt good to be around him because he's a legend on campus."
--After racking up 15 sacks in 2013, tying him for the best single-season performance in franchise history, defensive end Greg Hardy may be attempting to break records elsewhere next year.
The Panthers are unlikely to give the pending free agent a huge long-term deal, and giving him the franchise tag may be too cap-restrictive as well.
But head coach Ron Rivera, a self-proclaimed optimist, is trying to stay positive about retaining his breakout star.
"I'd like to believe so. One thing you always want to do is keep your strengths strong and our defensive line is very strong for us," Rivera said.
--Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said during a radio interview that he does not plan to hold out to pressure the team into giving him a long-term contract extension, ESPN.com reported.
Newton recently completed his third season in the NFL. Under the collective bargaining agreement, Newton is eligible for an extension of his original four-year contract. The Panthers also have the option of picking up a fifth-year option on the quarterback's current contract.
The Panthers went 12-4 this past season, and Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera have said Newton is the Panthers' franchise quarterback. However, there have been no signs that negotiations are underway on an extension or that the Panthers plan to pick up the option.
In any case, Newton said on the "Dan Patrick Show" on Monday (Feb. 17) that he does not plan to hold out to try to get a new contract.
"I'm not worried about contract discussions right now," he said on the show. "My main focus is just becoming the better player I can become."
He noted that Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in his second season as an NFL quarterback.
"Going into my fourth year, I want to make that leap, make that stride to be a marquee quarterback in this league," Newton said.
Newton's 2014 cap number of $7,008,113 ranks 19th among NFL quarterbacks. He is well below the average pay for the league's top 10 quarterbacks, which is $17.4 million.
Newton was the top overall draft pick in 2011, but he ranks fifth on the Panthers in 2014 salary, behind defensive end Charles Johnson, center Ryan Kalil, tight end Greg Olsen and safety Charles Godfrey.
Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson suggested he might hold out to try to get a contract extension, but Newton said he would not go that route.
"I think our positions are completely different," Newton said on the radio show. "Being the leader of this team, I don't think that would be a good look for me. Not taking anything away from Patrick -- he's an unbelievable player and an elite corner in the league -- but there's some things cornerbacks can do that quarterbacks can't."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is a big man's game. I don't care what anyone says. Big men win, that's just the way it is. It stands to reason that a bigger DB is going to tackle better than a littler guy." - Panthers GM David Gettleman, when asked at the Scouting Combine about whether the success of the Seattle Seahawks' physical secondary changes the way he approaches the draft.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Panthers signed kicker Graham Gano to a four-year contract Friday, avoiding free agency.
Gano converted 24 of 27 field-goal attempts last season to establish a career high with an 88.9 field-goal percentage. He set a franchise record and tied for the NFL lead for the most made field goals of 50 yards or more with six. He was the only kicker in the NFL with more than three attempts from 50-plus yards without a miss from that distance.
Gano also placed 76 of 82 kickoffs in the end zone with 63 touchbacks to lead the NFL with a 77.8 touchback percentage, the highest in the NFL since 1994.
"The special teams unit was a large part of our success last year and we are excited to keep Graham as a part of our team," coach Ron Rivera said in a statement. "Graham has shown range and accuracy in his field-goal kicking, and his strong leg has been a weapon for us on kickoffs."
Gano joined the Panthers in 2012, playing in the final six games of the season. Gano has converted 33 of 38 field-goal attempts, including seven of eight from 50-plus yards in 22 games with the Panthers.
The five-year NFL veteran has made 92 of 118 field-goal attempts in his career. Gano tied the NFL record for the most overtime field goals in a season with three in 2010, previously accomplished by Jason Hanson with the Detroit Lions in 1994 and John Kasay with Carolina in 2003.
Gano spent the first three years of his NFL career with the Washington Redskins.
Scheduled to be unrestricted in March
--QB Derek Anderson
--T Bruce Campbell
--QB Jimmy Clausen
--DT Colin Cole
--LB Dan Connor
--CB Drayton Florence
--WR Ted Ginn
--G Geoff Hangartner
--TE Ben Hartsock
--WR Domenik Hixon
--WR Brandon LaFell
--S Quintin Mikell
--S Mike Mitchell
--CB Captain Munnerlyn
--LB Jordan Senn
--G Travelle Wharton
--T Garry Williams
--LB Jason Williams
OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Veteran Jordan Gross retired so using the 28th pick on a tackle makes a lot of sense.
WIDE RECEIVER: QB Cam Newton needs more weapons, namely a speedster who can supplant Steve Smith as the No. 1 receiver.
CORNERBACK: Panthers pieced-together secondary held up for the most part this season. They need more than just Band-Aids, though.
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