Domestic violence charges against Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy have been dropped after the prosecution was unable to locate his accuser.
Despite the news, the Panthers have already made it known that they have no plans on retaining Hardy, who was designated with the team’s franchise tag last season when the two sides were unable to agree to a deal.
With Hardy now slated to hit the free agent market, he immediately becomes the second best defensive end available after the Giants Jason Pierre-Paul and could come at a discount due to his legal troubles, but which franchise would sign him? At the moment, the NFL is also not lifting his suspension until they “fully review the matter.”
Since Ray Rice was caught on video last year hitting his then-fiancee, domestic violence issues have put a black eye on the league. Any team who signs Hardy must be prepared to take the public relations hit, much like Michael Vick in Philadelphia, essentially leaving franchises with a strong front office or teams who play in big markets as those who would sign him.
One team, however, who does not fit the bill and could still land Hardy is Tennessee. Hardy grew up in the state and even played high school football in Memphis before going to college in Mississippi. Tennessee is a team in desperate need of an edge rusher and signing Hardy could shift the team’s focus on draft day to either quarterback or free them to trade down. Additionally, Tennessee has the cap space to make a big splash in the free agent market.
Oakland, who has also not shied from signing player with character issues, could also be in the mix. Hardy would pair up well with Khalil Mack, who just finished his rookie season, and Justin Tuck, but unless Oakland is opening the checkbook, I can’t see his happening. Oakland has been a cursed franchise since being crushed by their former head coach, Jon Gruden, in the Super Bowl. Since then, the team has not had a winning season and most free agents who do sign there are usually past their prime and are playing for the paycheck. Hardy, who is 26, still has his best years ahead of him and played for a Carolina Panthers team that went 12-4.
Though the team did not contend in 2014, the Chicago Bears are a historic franchise and have the talent on their roster available to make a push. Hardy would be an immediate upgrade of Jared Allen, who clearly lost a step this season. The Bears are a team with needs all across their defense and a high draft pick, so adding Hardy would help resolve at least one issue prior to the draft. Also, cap space is available for the team to use.
Of all teams available, however, Cincinnati may be the front runner in the end. Cincinnati is a franchise that has not been shy about signing players with legal issues. Adam Jones, who was suspended for the entire 2007 season, joined Cincinnati in 2010 and has flourished there, earning a First Team All-Pro nod this past season. Additionally, the Bengals pass rush was non-existent this past season and their draft position keeps them out of reach of the top-level talents in this draft. Cincinnati also has the cap room to add Hardy to their roster.
Unlike Oakland, Chicago, and Tennessee, Cincinnati is also a contending franchise. The Bengals have made the postseason four straight years despite playing a division that is one of the league’s most competitive. The Bengals have not won a postseason game since 1990 and the pressure is on head coach Marvin Lewis to win in the postseason. The Bengals offer Hardy a chance to have a fresh start while still playing in a winning atmosphere and in a city that does not carry the same media coverage as New York or Boston.
In the end, Hardy may receive a one-year “prove it” deal worth somewhere in the area of $8 million, but the market interest could escalate his price to the point where the team who commits the most years on a deal will land his services.