- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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The latest sign came when linebacker Thomas Davis restructured his contract for the fourth time in the last three years. The new deal will save Carolina $2.25 million under the salary cap.
That puts the Panthers more than $28 million under the projected cap, which ESPN.com reported last week could be as high as $132 million.
That's good news for a Carolina team with 21 unrestricted free agents, including Hardy.
Hardy's chances of returning increase with every increase in cap space. After leading the team in sacks with 15, he's set to become one of the most sought after free agents this year.
The Panthers also still have the option of using the franchise tag on him, which would eat up about $12 million in cap room. They have until March 3 to decide that.
Head coach Ron Rivera continues to be hopeful that general manager Dave Gettleman will find a way to keep Hardy. Asked at the NFL combine last week if he thought the team's sixth-round pick in 2010 would return, Rivera said, "I'd like to believe so."
"He's important," Rivera continued. "As I've talked to Dave about all the different things we're trying to do, one thing you always want to try to do is keep your strength strong. Our defensive line was very strong for us. So I'm very optimistic about what we can become as a football team."
While it may appear Gettleman is moving slow in negotiating deals to keep key players from last season's 12-4 team, in reality he is moving at a good pace to free up money while waiting on the official cap total.
He met with the agents of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, safety Mike Mitchell and others at the combine in Indianapolis. Both are expected to draw strong interest from other teams if not re-signed before free agency begins on March 11.
When Gettleman was hired last February, the Panthers were more than $16 million over the cap. He cleared much of the now available space by restructuring deals such as the one to defensive end Charles Johnson, who converted much of his 2013 salary into a pro-rated bonus to clear up $4.26 million.
Don't be surprised if Johnson's 2014 deal is restructured, too. His $16.4 million cap number is the highest on the team.
And don't be surprised if that also helps make it possible for Hardy to return.