Carolina Panthers: Greg Hardy

Panthers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
Three words. Salary cap management.

The Carolina Panthers were $16 million over the cap when general manager Dave Gettleman was hired in February 2013. They had little wiggle room to improve a team that had not made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2008. Between tough cuts, renegotiations and finding bargain players who have performed, he put the team more than $15 million under the cap.

Carolina still is not completely cap healthy. Huge contracts given to running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, as well as defensive end Charles Johnson, by former management will force Gettleman to remain somewhat frugal through 2015. But he's at least put the team in position to sign key players such as quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive end Greg Hardy to long-term deals.

The key to maintaining the success started with a 12-4 2013 season is keeping the star players under contract and being smart about signing the role-players around them. It's the same formula Seattle used to win the Super Bowl this past season.

With Newton and Kuechly in particular, the Panthers have anchors -- and leaders -- on both sides of the ball that should help them remain competitive for years to come. They'll make it easier to sign bargain free agents because players will want to come to Carolina to play with them. The closer Gettleman gets the Panthers to a cap-healthy state, the more flexibility he will have in bringing in those players. But the priority will be to continue to draft young stars, as Carolina has the past three years, and have the money to keep them after their rookie contracts expire.

The key will be to not overspend as past management did, making it tougher to keep the solid nucleus that Gettleman has solidified.
I'm back from vacation, sunburned and peeling. Time to catch up on your Carolina Panthers questions:

@DNewtonESPN: Funny. While defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short should be improved in their second season, defensive end Greg Hardy wouldn't come close to 50 sacks in a season if he had Hall of Famers Alan Page and "Mean" Joe Greene playing inside. He might have less than the 15 he had last season since those two got to the quarterback quite a bit during their prime. I imagine Lotulelei and Short might have a sack or two more this season as well, which would steal from opportunities. What's interesting about Hardy is most of his 2013 sacks came in bunches. He got 10 of his 15 in three games, including four in the finale against Atlanta. While nobody is complaining, the Panthers probably would be just as happy with him having 15 sacks spread out more evenly with others getting to the quarterback more. I will say this, Hardy will be hungrier than ever. He'll be playing for a new contract with the franchise tag on him this season. He'll also be playing to make people to forget the domestic violence charges pending against him. But since the NFL record for sacks in a season is 22.5 (Michael Strahan, 2001), expecting Hardy to get anywhere near 50 is as farfetched as Hardy saying he will get them.

@DNewtonESPN: Pretty sure Ryan Kalil will start at center (sarcasm here). As for the rest of the offensive line, I'm going with Nate Chandler at left tackle, Byron Bell at right tackle, Amini Silatolu at left guard and Trai Turner at right guard. Or, it could be Bell at left tackle and Chandler at right. As for the secondary, the safeties will be Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper. Predicting the starting corners isn't as easy. Much depends on whether Charles Godfrey has completely healed from the Achilles injury and can make the transition from safety back to corner. Leaving organized team activities, I would say Melvin White and Antoine Cason will be the corners, but Godfrey and maybe even Josh Norman could make it interesting.

@DNewtonESPN: No. It's too much money for a team trying to get salary cap healthy, and the Panthers seriously like what they have at wide receiver. It also doesn't make sense for the Texans to trade him, either.

@DNewtonESPN: Good question. The Panthers were high on fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila a year ago before he struggled with knee and hamstring issues in camp. He's still not showing the flashes the team had hoped, so right now it becomes a numbers game. Amini Silatolu appears ready to reclaim the left guard spot after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Carolina likes rookie Trai Turner at right guard and Chris Scott -- if he can stay in good shape -- has experience as a starter. Garry Williams also has experience at guard, so if he doesn't win one of the tackle spots he could be a flex player as a backup. I still believe Kugbila will make the cut. General manager Dave Gettleman likes his hog mollies, and at 6-4, 325 Kubgila is a big one.

@DNewtonESPN: I'm not sure about expanding the playbook, but it will be somewhat different in terms of Carolina's plans to run more two tight-end sets. Depending on whether Brandon Williams makes the roster, as I'm predicting he will, there will be three legitimate receiving threats there between Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson and Williams. With Steve Smith gone at wide receiver, that also opens the door for more receivers to be rotated in and out since Smith never left the field unless he was injured. You'll also continue to see a good rotation at running back between DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, a healthy Jonathan Stewart and now Kenjon Barner. If by expand you mean offensive coordinator Mike Shula will open things up more, I wouldn't count on that. The Panthers still want to run a ball control offense. But in terms of using more players, I definitely see that. 
By the time you read this, I'll be under a palm tree somewhere far away sipping on some sort of fruity drink in a funky shaped container with umbrellas.

My mind probably won't be on football. But it was before I left, and here's the answers to a few questions you had concerning the Carolina Panthers:

@DNewtonESPN: From a raw talent perspective, there's no doubt first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is No. 1. He made some catches during organized team activities and last week's minicamp that left your jaw hanging on the turf. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle. Benjamin will go through some of that, but his size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) makes him a top target for quarterback Cam Newton. Whether the team calls him the No. 1 receiver isn't important. This will be a ball control offense, and in Benjamin and veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant they have three solid ball control receivers. They also have three tight ends -- Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson and (this may surprise you) Brandon Williams -- who will be receiving threats. It's not about being No. 1 as much as it is having six or seven players capable of making plays. The Panthers appear to have that. If you ask me, and I've said this many times recently, they're more talented at receiver than they were a year ago. @DNewtonESPN: Yes and yes. Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy was on the radar as a late first-round to early second-round pick. When he was there at No. 60 the Panthers felt lucky to get him just as they were with Star Lotulelei in the first round a year earlier. And yes, Ealy can make an immediate impact. He is a lot like Greg Hardy in that he can play end and tackle. I can see the Panthers using a combination of Hardy, Ealy, Lotulelei and Charles Johnson at times. That should put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. And remember, the Panthers led the league with 60 sacks without Ealy. @DNewtonESPN: You need to look at this in a more positive way. Yes, the contracts of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams make them virtually untradeable and uncuttable until after the 2015 season. But Williams looks like he still has some gas in the tank and Stewart appears healthy for the first time in three years. While asking them to recreate "Double Trouble" and both be 1,000 yard rushers might be asking a lot, there are a lot of teams that would love to have one or both on their roster. Maybe not for the price they are being paid, but the talent is still there.

@DNewtonespn Do you think Williams can contribute in our offense this upcoming season? #PanthersMailbag

— Edward Myers (@edwardmyersNFL) June 18, 2014 @DNewtonESPN: Definitely. It'll be hard getting him on the field ahead of Olsen and Dickson, two proven tight ends that can catch. But Williams has been one of the players I've mentioned during OTAs and minicamp that has stood out. He's has good hands and with his size (6-4, 250 pounds), Williams is almost like another wide receiver out there. I fully expect him to be on the 53-player roster after final cuts. Wouldn't surprise me if he caught a touchdown or two this year. 
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera had a question for several reporters as we waited for practice to begin on Wednesday.

"Why aren't you guys at the U.S. Open?'' he said.

Maybe it was more like a message. As in, don't you have anything better to do than watch football practice in June when players aren't even in pads?

For the bosses at, I wouldn't dream of being anywhere else on a hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, hot, muggy day three months before the season opens watching 90 players, of which 40 percent won't make the team. For Rivera, I'll be at the Open today.

But before heading to Pinehurst, North Carolina, and the famous No. 2 course that's made my golf game look worse than the 90th-best player on the Carolina roster, let me answer a few questions:

@DNewtonESPN: While it will be tough to improve on the numbers from a year ago that had Carolina No. 2 in the league in defense, this unit potentially is stronger. Here's why. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short should be better and more consistent than they were as rookies, and they were pretty darn good as rookies. Rookie defensive end Kony Ealy adds another pass-rusher who can play multiple positions on the line like Greg Hardy. Hardy will be playing for a long-term deal and to make people forget his May arrest. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Enough said about the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. I like the potential of Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud at the safety spots. Remember, nobody knew who Mike Mitchell was this time a year ago. The corners have a chance to be better. Melvin White has a year's worth of experience and Charles Godfrey, if his Achilles is fully healed and he can make the transition back to cornerback, could be a force. @DNewtonESPN: I believe somebody asked me that recently and my answer was 9-7, perhaps 10-6 if the offensive line comes around. I'm not willing to go beyond that until I see them in pads, and most of the so-called experts would disagree with a winning record, arguing the offensive line is in shambles and the wide receivers are new. As I've said before, the receivers as a group are more talented than a year ago and the offensive line was in shambles a year ago at this time and turned out pretty good. Let's revisit this in August. @DNewtonESPN: Your assumption that Ed Dickson is the No. 2 tight end is spot on, although you could argue there's a 2 and 2a because Mike McNeil will be in there a lot when the Panthers need a true blocker at the position. Richie Brockel also is considered a blocking tight end, even though he plays fullback, too. As for the next receiving tight end, I'd go with Brandon Williams. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds he had the physical tools of Vernon Davis. He just doesn't have the experience or refinement of Davis, yet. @DNewtonESPN: Kenyon Barner will be in the mix as a returner, and may hold the upper hand now. The Panthers want to find ways to get him on the field. I'd also look for wide receivers Marvin McNutt, Tiquan Underwood, Kealoha Pilares, Philly Brown and De'Andre Pressley to be in the mix. Carolina will be looking for ways to keep a young wide receiver that doesn't make the top six in the rotation, and this could be one way. @DNewtonESPN: Maybe both because their contracts make them basically untradeable and uncuttable. Both likely will have to restructure. Jonathan Stewart had his deal restructured in February to help this year's cap situation, but he's scheduled to count $8.3 million under the cap in 2015 and $9.5 million in 2016. His base salary in 2015 goes from $785,000 to $4,250,000. DeAngelo Williams will count $6,333,333 next season and will be 32. General manager Dave Gettleman said after the season he was two years away from being completely cap healthy. These deals are a big reason for that. @DNewtonESPN: The safeties appear set with Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. Free-agent acquisition Antoine Cason has looked good at corner, and starter Melvin White returns. But Charles Godfrey hasn't been on the field as he rehabs the Achilles injury and he'll figure into the mix at corner. Don't overlook Josh Norman, either. He continues to shine in practice as he has in the past. If he can play that way in games he'll be a factor. @DNewtonESPN: Definitely. The Panthers selected Trai Turner in the third round thinking he could step in and play right guard. In his favor is LSU ran pretty much the same offense and had much of the same terminology that the Panthers do. He's big, mobile and can pull the way Carolina guards are asked to do. Other than being 20, there's not much negative you can say. @DNewtonESPN: Normally, I would say keep it to one question per mailbag. But since I said ask anything, and I like this one, I'll answer. I'm kind of partial to the 1970s. Yeah, I'm aging myself now. And I thought disco would live forever. Boy, was I wrong. The Eagles are still classic forever. Not the Philadelphia Eagles, either. As for the intro song, how about "Get Down Tonight" by K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Either that or "Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry. Kind of gets your blood flowing. But in reality it probably should be "You Don't Have To Be A Star" by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., because there's no way I'd be a star. 
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Defensive end Greg Hardy missed Wednesday's organized workout undergoing what coach Ron Rivera called "maintenance'' on a minor leg injury.

Rivera did not indicate that the injury was serious or that it would keep Hardy out of next week's minicamp.

Hardy led Carolina in sacks in 2013, tying the team single-season record with 15. He was given the franchise tag during the offseason, guaranteeing him $13.1 million in 2014.

The Panthers advanced Hardy $1.3 million of his salary for participating in all offseason workouts. The time missed during his May arrest for domestic violence and for Wednesday does not impact that.

Hardy was charged on May 13 with assaulting and threatening ex-girlfriend, Nicole Holder. His next court date is June 27.

Observations from Panthers OTA

May, 29, 2014
May 29
A few observations from Wednesday, the first and only time this week the media will see the Carolina Panthers on the field during the third phase of offseason workouts:

  • [+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
    AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThe Panthers are looking to Kelvin Benjamin to help replenish their depleted receiving corps.
    Quarterback Cam Newton stayed after practice to throw with first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. That Newton was there in a jersey at all was surprising since the surgery on his left ankle was supposed to keep him off the field until training camp. Newton throwing to the 6-foot-5 Benjamin in particular was impressive because it shows he understands the importance of developing chemistry with the former Florida State standout as he prepares for his first season without Steve Smith and his other top three receivers from last season.
  • Benjamin and cornerback James Dockery got into a mild scuffle. We were used to seeing that a lot with Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver. Nobody expected it from Benjamin, who is way more soft-spoken than Smith. But it showed some fire on both sides of the ball and was an example of what competition, something the Panthers hope breeds performance, will do for a team.
  • Former safety Charles Godfrey, making the transition to cornerback, participated in individual drills. Godfrey continues to rehabilitate from a torn Achilles that ended his 2013 season in the second game. He didn't take part in team drills, but you could see why Carolina wanted him around the way he encouraged teammates as they came off the field. That he's doing that after taking more than a $4 million pay cut was impressive. He's a leader, and the team needs leaders like Godfrey to have a chance to repeat last year's 12-4 record. If they're lucky, they'll get a starting cornerback out of a player who played that position in college. He has all the physical tools to be a Richard Sherman type corner. He just needs time on the field.
  • Rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere played nickel back. The coaching staff said he could step right into the competition with Godfrey for that spot. He looked up to the challenge with one interception and almost a second. When I asked coach Ron Rivera if there were any surprises so far, he couldn't get the name of the fifth-round pick from San Jose State out of his mouth fast enough.
  • Byron Bell and Nate Chandler flip-flopped between left tackle. Bell is considered the front-runner to replace the retired Jordan Gross at a key position, but don't rule out Chandler. Rivera said the position is up for grabs and reminded that Chandler had nine quality starts at guard last season when nobody expected him to be a factor.
  • Undrafted rookie wide receiver Philly Brown went deep for a score. The former Ohio State star may be small at 5-foot-11, but he's super fast. He's No. 16 on your program, and a player to watch out for as a sleeper in the wide receiver battle.
  • Jerricho Cotchery already sounds like the veteran leader the Panthers hoped he would be when they signed him from Pittsburgh after letting Smith go. The 31-year-old looked far from washed up, making several nice catches in traffic. He's going to be a plus for this unit.
  • Guard Amini Silatolu worked with the trainer on the sideline as he continues to rehabilitate his left knee. The Panthers need him to return at full strength at left guard to help solidify this line.
  • Right guard Chris Scott left the field during team drills after becoming overheated. It was a reminder of how hot it will be in Spartanburg, South Carolina during training camp.
  • The absence of cornerback Josh Norman. No worries. He had a dental appointment.
  • Defensive end Greg Hardy seemed to not let his May 13 arrest on domestic violence charges affect his play. Regardless of the result of Hardy's criminal charges, the Panthers will need the player who has 26 sacks the past two seasons to sustain or improve the league's second-ranked defense.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy arrived at practice on Wednesday wearing headphones that protected him from the outside world, including those who lined the sidewalk waiting on him. He left practice flanked by running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, who kept the outside world from getting close enough to ask questions.

"He ain't talking today," Stewart told a throng of reporters trying to get the first public comments from Hardy since his May 13 arrest on domestic violence charges.

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy
Bob Leverone/AP PhotoPanthers DE Greg Hardy gives a thumbs up to his teammates as he makes his way onto the field Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C.
Then came the first public comment.

"Got to get to weights, guys," said Hardy, looking over his shoulder with a smile.

That was it.

On a day when right tackle Byron Bell was discussing his transition from right to left tackle and quarterback Cam Newton was throwing passes -- at least for public viewing -- for the first time since undergoing ankle surgery were significant topics, the first player most reporters approached was Hardy.

Not that anybody expected the 2013 Pro Bowl selection to talk. But on the chance he might, questions had to be asked.

Interesting, though, the Panthers didn't seem to be questioning Hardy at all. From head coach Ron Rivera to fellow end Charles Johnson to Bell, they were focused on Hardy the football player.

If the charges Hardy faces from the incident with ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder were a distraction, you couldn't tell it by him or his teammates.

"Not at all," Bell said. "I'm at left tackle the first play and he's flying out the box, so that's not interfering with him. For the most part, as far as I'm concerned, it ain't bothering him, it ain't bothering the team.

"He's coming out here flying around. He looks like [the old] Hardy, so the 50 sacks might come back up again. He'll be ready to go, and I believe that."

Bell was referring to Hardy's prediction last summer that he would have 50 sacks, more than doubling the NFL single-season record. He didn't get close, but he tied the team's single-season record with 15.

That was good enough to earn Hardy the franchise tag, which guaranteed him $13.1 million this season. He's getting $1.3 million of that in advance to guarantee his presence in all of the voluntary and non-voluntary offseason workouts as Wednesday's was.

So it came as no surprise that Hardy was in attendance and focused on the field -- not what's happening off it.

"Greg's looked really good," Rivera said. "It's tough, because we're not in pads, and so when he comes off the ball the tackles can't really strike him the way you normally would in pads. So the advantage goes to him right now. He looked very quick, very athletic, doing some really good things."

And these are some of the reasons the Panthers were disappointed with Hardy's arrest, as Carolina understands what he means to the defense that ranked second in the NFL last season.

"Whatever happened, it happened," said Bell, who at one point got into a small exchange with Hardy during practice. "It's over now and in the past. He just wants to play football and so do I."

Over is over-simplifying things. Hardy is scheduled for court on June 27. He still faces sanctions from the court if found guilty, which his attorney contends he's not, and also potential sanctions from the NFL and/or Panthers.

But for now, it's all about football for him and his teammates. They've apparently rallied around him, just as Stewart and Williams did on this day.

That's what players and teams typically do in the storm of controversy. They keep the outside world from being a distraction for the team the way Johnson told Hardy to keep it from being a distraction to him.

"Come to work," Johnson said. "It's what we do. We work and let our work talk for itself."
Don't look for a Ray Rice moment from defensive end Greg Hardy on Wednesday when the Carolina Panthers have their first media availability for the third phase of offseason workouts.

There are no plans for Hardy, who hasn't spoken to the media since he was arrested and charged for domestic violence in a May 13 incident involving his ex-girlfriend, to make a statement or take questions.

Rice wouldn't have spoken on Friday either if it was left up to his attorney. But the Baltimore Ravens running back wanted to address the Feb. 15 incident that led to charges of aggravated assault for striking his fiancée, Janay Palmer, who now is his wife. So he spoke to the team about organizing an opportunity for him to make a statement on the incident that was captured on video from the Revel Casino in Atlantic City.

Rice, who has entered a pre-trial intervention program, didn't take questions. He merely apologized to the staff, organization and his fans with Palmer at his side.

His attorney, Michael Diamondstein, wasn't consulted and later said on a Baltimore radio station the statement "puts this matter behind him so that he can move forward, not only with his NFL career, I think it was the right choice for his family as well."

That's not likely to happen with Hardy, who didn't comment when released and hasn't since. He also hasn't asked the team to organize press availability for him.

One difference in the two cases is there is no video of the verbal and physical assault that Nicole Holder accused Hardy, Carolina's 2013 sack leader, of committing. Another is Rice and his wife initially were arrested before charges against Palmer were dismissed. Hardy was the only person charged in the incident with Holder.

Rice also married Palmer and took responsibility for what happened. Hardy's attorney claimed in court, when a $17,000 bond was ordered for his client's release, that Holder initiated the incident and his client was innocent.

So if Hardy, set to earn $13.1 million as the team's franchise tag player, came out and apologized it could be construed as an admittance of guilt.

Hardy's trial date is June 27. That will allow him to speak and put the incident behind him before the team reports to training camp on July 24.

Until then, he won't be able to publicly put his charges behind him.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and half a dozen of his teammates spent Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway signing autographs, posing for pictures and getting a behind-the-scenes look at stock car racing during the Coca-Cola 600.

Now it's back to business.

The Panthers return to the field on Tuesday for the first time since they lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional playoff game in January as Phase III of offseason workouts begin.

It will be the first time all the free agents, rookies and returning players have been through an organized session outside of the weight room and classroom.

"It's going to be great,'' Olsen said. "We had a good week [working out together]. It will be interesting to see how it all starts to come together.''

There are many questions to resolve from a team coming off a 12-4 record and NFC South championship. Here are five areas to keep an eye on:
  • The receivers: As you've probably read more times than you can count, the Panthers lost their top four wide receivers from last season. Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, was released. The next three went to other teams in free agency. The Panthers replaced them with first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. Benjamin was impressive in rookie camp, but that was going against players who won't be on the roster. This will be his first big-time test. But the players I'm most interested in seeing are youngsters Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Brenton Bersin. One of the reasons the Panthers let Smith go was to allow one or more of these players to develop. One needs to emerge for this to be a strong group.
  • The offensive line: Outside of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, this unit looks to be completely revamped. The key position is left tackle, where Jordan Gross retired. Right tackle Byron Bell and right guard Nate Chandler are the front-runners for that spot. Much doubt has been cast on whether Bell is ready -- or talented enough -- for the move. How well this group does depends largely on whether he or Chandler emerges as a legitimate candidate to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side.
  • The secondary: Cornerback Melvin White, an undrafted rookie last season, is the only returning player from the four that started against San Francisco. Like the offensive line, this unit will be revamped with a mixture of veterans in free-agent safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud and young players looking to prove themselves. I'll be most interested in seeing one player who is not expected to compete in OTAs. That's Charles Godfrey, who will move from safety to cornerback. Godfrey missed most of last season with an Achilles injury that he continues to recover from, then had his contract significantly reduced to return and compete at a new position.
  • The distraction: Defensive end Greg Hardy is expected to be on the field for the first time since being arrested on domestic violence charges on May 13. His next court date is June 27 and he hasn't spoken to the media since his arrest, so it will be interesting to see how he and the team handles this. Coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman have said they won't respond until Hardy's case is resolved, and their focus will be on football. But there will be a lot of eyes off the field on Hardy, who was given the franchise tag in February. Meanwhile, second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, will get a lot of work as the Panthers expect him to be a big part of the rotation.
  • The quarterbacks: Newton will remain sidelined, recovering from offseason ankle surgery. That leaves the throwing to backup Derek Anderson, Matt Blanchard and Joe Webb. I'm most intrigued by Webb here. The Panthers know what they have in Anderson, a pure pocket passer. They signed Webb from Minnesota, which had moved him back and forth between quarterback and wide receiver, to give them a signal-caller who more closely does the things Newton does with his legs. If he's going to make the team, this will be his best chance to prove himself.

Panthers offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

 With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple months away, we assess the Carolina Panthers' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Chris KeaneKelvin Benjamin made a good first impression on his new teammates at rookie minicamp.
Best move: Selecting Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick of the draft. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin is considered by many to be a first-round risk because he doesn't have a long history of performing at a high level. But after watching him in rookie camp, the way he effortlessly caught passes in traffic even when the passes weren't well-thrown, he has a chance to make people quickly forget the release of Steve Smith and become a long-term solution as a No. 1 receiver.

Riskiest move: Many will argue releasing Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, should be here. Although I didn't like the way it was handled, it wasn't such a big risk when you consider Smith was no longer a No. 1-caliber receiver. The biggest risk was not signing a veteran left tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross and leaving the job to right tackle Byron Bell or Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman. Maybe one will surprise, but leaving franchise quarterback Cam Newton without a proven player protecting his blind side seems like a mistake for a team that depends so heavily on Newton.

Most surprising move: That the team didn't find a way to keep any of its top four wide receivers from last season. While I believe the Panthers will be better off with the new group that consists of Benjamin; free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood; and several young players such as Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Brenton Bersin few would have predicted a complete overhaul of that group after they starting developing chemistry with Newton.

Reason for the minus: Many would say the Panthers had a disastrous offseason, losing their top four receivers, three-fourths of their starting secondary and their left tackle. Oh, and quarterback Cam Newton is out for four months after undergoing ankle surgery. But the retirement of the left tackle aside, the loses weren't huge. So, why the B-minus? That would be for the distraction created after the arrest of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy. You never want to have a star player in trouble, particularly when you've just guaranteed him $13.1 million with the franchise tag. At a time when the Panthers are trying to focus on retooling, Hardy's arrest on domestic violence charges is dominating the headlines.
It's been a controversial offseason for the Carolina Panthers, beginning with the release of wide receiver Steve Smith and continuing this past week with the arrest of defensive end Greg Hardy on domestic violence charges.

Where there's controversy there are questions.

Let's get right to them:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One-hundred and eighty-eight players were selected in last weekend's NFL draft between Kony Ealy in the second round and fellow Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in the seventh.

The gap could have been bigger if Ealy had gone in the first round as the Carolina Panthers, who got him with the No. 60 overall pick, had him graded.

[+] EnlargeKony Ealy
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsKony Ealy's versatility on the defensive line drew the Panthers to the Missouri product at No. 60 in the draft.
Or, it could have been smaller had Sam, picked by the St. Louis Rams at No. 249, gone in the fifth or sixth round where many teams had him graded.

Statistically, it doesn't add up. Sam, the first openly gay player selected in the draft, led the SEC in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18) compared to 9.5 and 14.5 for Ealy. Sam was the co-defensive player of the year in arguably the country's toughest conference.

So why was there so much disparity between the players in the draft? For the Panthers, it came down to two things. They viewed Ealy as more valuable because he could play end as well as tackle. At 6-foot-4 and 273 pounds, he was ideally suited to fit into their 4-3 scheme.

They never seriously considered Sam because they saw him strictly as an end in a 3-4 scheme.

"Obviously, the more a guy can do the more value he has," general manager Dave Gettleman said Friday as the Panthers began a two-day minicamp. "What Kony has is the ability to be a 4-3 defensive end, and he's got the ability to go inside and sub, which is huge."

Gettleman then drew on what he called a "blast from the past" in former Carolina head coach John Fox, who was the defensive coordinator with the New York Giants while Gettleman was there.

"John Fox taught me this when I was with the Giants," Gettleman said. "One of the biggest mismatches in the game is those very real sudden, quick guys inside against the hog mollies [his name for big linemen]. They struggle to get their gloves on them.

"Kony goes in there, and he's very comfortable. He played inside against big guys in the SEC, and it was never too big for him. Someone made the argument he was just as productive in the 3-technique as he was inside. That's a huge value. Sam doesn't have that. Sam is more of a 3-4 outside guy."

Ealy is comfortable inside. When I asked him where he was best, he didn't hesitate.

"I'm comfortable anywhere they put me on the defensive line," he said.

Ealy's value might increase even more if Pro Bowl end Greg Hardy's legal issues -- he was arrested and charged Tuesday in a domestic violence incident -- result in any kind of suspension this season or impacts the team's plans to sign him to a long-term deal.

Ealy does many of the same things Hardy does as far as playing inside and outside, although Gettleman characterized Hardy as more of a power rusher and Ealy as more of an athletic rusher.

Regardless, the Panthers believe Ealy can have an immediate impact.

"He's going to be in the rotation really quick," Gettleman said. "We really vetted him out."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The $1.3 million advance the Carolina Panthers agreed to pay Greg Hardy to attend the entire offseason workout program hasn't been impacted -- so far -- by the defensive end's absence due to legal issues, according to a source.

Hardy was arrested Tuesday on charges of domestic violence against Nicole Holder, a 24-year-old woman with whom he has had a relationship with since September. He spent Tuesday night in jail and wasn't released until midday Wednesday.

At that point, Hardy and agent Drew Rosenhaus arrived at Bank of America Stadium to meet with team officials.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday preparing to be the honorary pace car driver for Saturday night's Sprint All-Star race, told the Charlotte Observer Hardy had not been at workouts this week.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera declined to discuss Hardy during Friday's rookie minicamp, but he did note that organized team activities are voluntary. They won't become mandatory until the first week in June.

The Panthers apparently are willing to work with Hardy on his guarantee -- a tenth of the $13.1 million Hardy was guaranteed when Carolina put the franchise tag on him -- while he gets his legal issues in order. A year ago, Hardy lost $100,000 in salary for not participating in at least 90 percent of the team's offseason workout programs in 2012 and 2013.

Nobody has said this, but I would suspect Hardy will attend most -- if not all -- of the mandatory sessions, including a June 17-19 minicamp. His next court date is set for June 27, and the Panthers probably don't want his first appearance at a practice to be in training camp.

"There are allegations that he has to deal with," Gettleman said in a brief comment on Hardy. "It's in the legal system and we are concerned for all parties."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers begin a two-day rookie camp on Friday, but the focus may not be on the field. Coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman still haven't commented publicly on Tuesday's arrest of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy on charges of domestic violence and how it could impact Hardy's future with the team.

Players still haven't publicly reacted to the incident that took a new twist on Thursday when court documents revealed, according to statements given by girlfriend Nicole Holder, that Hardy "just snapped" because of her short-lived relationship with rapper Nelly.

Second-round draft pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, will have a larger spotlight on him now simply because he plays the same position as Hardy.

Beyond all that, this will be the first opportunity for first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin to show Carolina coaches why the wide receiver out of Florida State deserved to be the 28th overall pick.

It will be a chance for third-round draft pick Trai Turner, a guard out of LSU, to show why he deserves a chance to compete for a starting position.

It will be the first step for all six draft picks, nine undrafted rookies, a few hand-picked qualifying players from the current roster and 25 to 35 invited tryouts to make an impression.

That Hardy, released Wednesday on a $17,000 bond, won't be there will make what has happened in court less of a distraction.

But there are sure to be more television news crews and media in general attending a rookie camp that often draws little attention.

This will be the first step for the Panthers to show how they'll handle the distraction moving forward.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The one-liners began Tuesday, soon after news surfaced that Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy had been arrested on charges of domestic violence.

The most common: "When will The Kraken be released?"

That was an obvious play on Hardy's talking this past season about releasing the alter-ego he refers to as "The Kraken." For months, there have been T-shirts on sale, in Carolina black and blue colors, that actually say, "Release The Kraken."

If this wasn't so sad, that might be funny.

But there is nothing funny about what Hardy has been accused of, the charges he faces and what it potentially could mean to the team -- and him.

The Panthers guaranteed the Pro Bowl player $13.1 million in 2014 not just because he collected a team-best 15 sacks last season and is a big part of what they do defensively, but because he appeared to have matured past the mistakes he made early in his NFL career and at Ole Miss.

General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera were so impressed with the person and player Hardy had become that they were trying to negotiate a long-term deal.

Hardy's arrest can't be good for any leverage he might have had.

It's certainly not good for the Panthers.

Unless he's cleared legally, the charges of "assault on a female" -- according to the police report, a woman Hardy has been in an active relationship with since September 2013 -- will be mentioned in almost every story written about Hardy.

That's not the type of connection team owner Jerry Richardson typically tolerates. The Panthers released Chris Terry during the 2002 season only a few months after the offensive tackle was charged with assaulting his wife.

In 2008, with no charges involved, the team suspended Steve Smith for two games after the wide receiver got into a fight with one of his teammates in training camp.

Hardy should be nervous as he spends the night in the Mecklenburg County Police Department jail.

He spent four years working his tail off trying to prove he deserved the big contract that he has always wanted. He was willing to work his tail off for another year, while under the franchise tag, to get a long-term deal with the Panthers, a team he had come to love.

Now his long-term future, at least with the Panthers, could be in jeopardy.

It's a shame. Hardy was a big part of what Carolina did last season as the league's No. 2 defense. He showed rare ability with his flexibility to pressure the quarterback, play end or tackle, and drop back in coverage.

He became endearing in interviews when he went into what he called "Kraken mode." It brought us moments such as his prediction of 50 sacks when the league record was 22.5, and a boast that he could beat LeBron James in a game of 1-on-1.

And who will forget the Sunday night game against the New Orleans Saints when, while wearing sunglasses, he introduced himself to NBC's national television audience as "The Kraken from Hogwarts."

"He's a very unique individual," Rivera said the next week. "He really is. He's got so much ability, so much talent and he really just enjoys playing the game."

But in Hardy you always suspected there was a persona that lived on the edge of greatness and self-destruction. The summer after being involved in a 2011 motorcycle accident that kept him out of most of the preseason, he tweeted a picture of the speedometer in a Bentley traveling faster than 100 mph.

His driving record is spotted with speeding charges. His college record is filled with reports of behavioral and maturity issues that played a role in his being a sixth-round pick instead of a first- or second-rounder when the Panthers selected him in 2010.

"You just wish that light bulb would go on and stay lit for a long time," Matt Saunders, a close friend and former Ole Miss graduate assistant, told the Commercial Appeal in Memphis in 2008.

Perhaps the charges Hardy faces now will light that bulb. Perhaps he will become a model citizen the rest of the year and earn that long-term deal he spoke of so often.

Perhaps the damage already has been done.

"Release the Kraken" has taken on a new meaning these days.

And it's nothing to laugh at.