Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy stayed off his motorcycle and stayed in the weight room this offseason.
The result: Hardy has gained about 20 pounds of muscle entering his third NFL season.
Nearly a year after a motorcycle wreck sidetracked his preparations for the 2011 season and left him with abrasions on the left side of his body, Hardy looks to be in the best shape of his life. The 6-foot-4 Hardy weighs 299 pounds – up from his playing weight of 280 last year – and has 14 percent body fat.
“Last year I couldn’t work at all. So I felt like I had to come out and kill it,” Hardy said Thursday after the Panthers’ final minicamp practice.
Hardy was traveling to Charlotte from his Memphis hometown the week before training camp when he lost control of his Kawasaki Ninja after running into the vehicle in front of him on Interstate 40 outside of Knoxville. Hardy sustained no broken bones, but the cuts on his foot and toe sidelined him for four weeks.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera named Hardy a starter without ever seeing him play, and Hardy returned to practice about two weeks before the season opener at Arizona. Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010 out of Ole Miss, said he felt out of sorts after getting back on the field.
“That whole month off, it just threw you off,” Hardy said. “You come back and put pads on (before) the first game. Practice for one week and have to play the Cardinals. It’s rough.”
Yet, Hardy played well against the Cardinals with five tackles, a sack and two quarterback pressures. He had three sacks in the first five games and appeared headed for a huge year.
But Hardy managed only one sack the rest of the season as he faced more double teams and often had a tight end lined up across from him.
“I had some instances because I was playing over the tight end all year, where I had a little bit of trouble,” Hardy said. “For the most part I had good technique. But I felt like if I got my weight up, I would take my game to the next level.”
Hardy added more protein to his diet, and made the weight room his winter home.
“He’s always been big. Now he’s bigger,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. “And the weight he’s gained is good weight.”
While there was a lot of talk outside of the Panthers’ offices calling for the team to draft or sign a pass rusher this offseason, Hurney and Rivera see Hardy as a disruptive force.
Hardy led the SEC with 10 sacks as a sophomore and was expected to be a first-round draft pick before injuries slowed him at Ole Miss. But Hardy’s athleticism has never been in question: He played 15 games for the Rebels’ basketball team as a freshman and led the Panthers last season with 17 pressures and 11 pass breakups – the majority on batted balls.
The Panthers hope Hardy, with his redistributed weight, can be more effective this season and take some of the pressure off defensive end Charles Johnson, the team leader with nine sacks in 2011.
“He’s put on some weight and kept the same quickness. He shows the desire. He’s done everything to show you that he wants to be very, very good,” Hurney said. “He’s improved. I think the offseason’s helped him a lot. … He’s just got a special knack as far as rushing the passer.”
Rivera talked excitedly about Hardy on Thursday, starting in with praise for him before a reporter could finish a question.
“He’s put a lot of muscle on. He’s only got 14 percent body fat. So we’re pretty excited about what he’s done this offseason. He’s had a great one,” Rivera said. “Last year he had the accident before camp. Him spending the entire offseason here was tremendous. And I’m real excited about what he can become as a football player.”
After his wreck last year Hardy said he was done with motorcycles. He bought a Chevy Avalanche, which he called “a really, really, really big truck.”
Now there’s a bigger man sitting behind the wheel of that big rig, planning on doing some big things this fall.
“If I keep the batted balls up, add on some sacks, complement Chuck (Johnson), we’re going to be pretty dominant,” Hardy said.