Carolina position analysis: Defensive line


Part 4 of my position-by-position analysis of the Carolina Panthers' roster focuses on an area that faces arguably the single-biggest question heading into free agency.

Can you say "The Kraken?''

Next up: Defensive line

2013 grade: A-plus. This group wasn't far behind the linebackers for strength of the league's second-ranked defense. One easily could have argued it was.

Under contract (2014 salary cap number): DE Charles Johnson ($16,420,000), DE Frank Alexander ($687,563), DE Wes Horton ($498,333), DE Mario Addison ($645,000), DT Star Lotulelei ($2,182,841), DT Kawann Short ($1,052,349), DT Dwan Edwards ($2,087,500), Linden Gaydosh ($495,000) . Total: ($24,068,586)

Key free agents: DE Greg Hardy, DT Colin Cole.

Good news: There's a reason the Panthers were second in the NFL against the run this past season. Just look at the money they spent on the defensive line. The good news is a majority of those players are back, including 2013 rookie tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who took this unit to another level. They can only get better. From overall talent to depth there's not a position in better shape going into 2014.

Bad news: End Greg Hardy, who led the team in sacks with 15, is an unrestricted free agent. Coach Ron Rivera said he can't imagine going into 2014 without Hardy. Whether general manager Dave Gettleman can find a way under a tight salary cap to keep him is the big question. Hardy, aka "The Kraken,'' said he wouldn't mind the franchise tag being used on him. But at about $12 million that still would be a big hit for a team with 21 free agents. If Carolina can't make that work and Hardy gets a big offer from another team, he could be gone.

The draft: Carolina used its first two picks on tackles Lotulelei and Short a year ago, so don't look for an early pick to be used on the line unless they were to lose Hardy and a potential starter at end were to fall to them at No. 28. The good news is they got a steal in Hardy in the sixth round four years ago, so they may be looking to do that again.