Potential shows with each sack for Panthers’ Hardy

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 25, 2013 

After Greg Hardy’s 11-sack season last year, one of the biggest questions surrounding the defensive end was: Can he do it again?

With one game left this regular season, Hardy has matched his career-high total with 11 sacks, tabbing back-to-back seasons with double-digit sacks for the first time in his career.

“I think the big thing it talks about his growth,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The coaching’s been outstanding. I think what (defensive line coach) Eric Washington and (assistant defensive line coach) Sammy Mills do with the defensive line is great, as do all our coaches. To get a young man who’s in the developmental stage of his career and start to produce, that’s what you look for.

“He’s got a ways to go, and he’ll tell you. He works hard, but he knows that he’s just starting to scratch the surface.”

Hardy leads the team after sacking New Orleans’ Drew Brees three times Sunday. He overtook Charles Johnson’s lead of nine sacks; Johnson sat out two games this season.

A fourth-year defensive end, Hardy had seven sacks in his first two seasons combined. He has five in the past four games, and his three-sack game against the Saints matched his previous season-high that came against Eli Manning and the New York Giants in Week 3.

Hardy is in the final year of his rookie contract that pays him $1.35 million. He said he would take “a small cut” in his next contract to stay with the Panthers, though he wouldn’t put a number on it.

Rivera said, like quarterback Cam Newton, Hardy’s ceiling is very high.

“I think the potential could be a lot,” Rivera said. “He’s also a really smart football player. I don’t think a lot of people give him credit for that. They see this big, physical player out there, but the realization is he gets it and he understands.”

Good Guy: Tight end Greg Olsen has been selected as the winner of the Pro Football Writers of America 2013 Tom Berry Good Guy Award.

The award is given to the Panthers player who is most cooperative with the media. It’s selected annually by local media members who cover the team regularly.

It’s named after former High Point Enterprise Panthers beat writer Tom Berry, who passed away in 2009.

Brad Hoover, Jordan Gross, James Anderson and Captain Munnerlyn have received the award previously.

Pro Bowl voting: The NFL will announce Pro Bowl rosters Friday. Last week, nine Panthers were in the top 10 in fan voting, which ended Thursday.

Fan voting makes up one-third of the votes, with the other two-thirds coming from players and coaches.

Last week, Mike Tolbert led all fullbacks. The other Panthers in the top 10 were: center Ryan Kalil (third), middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (third), free safety Mike Mitchell (fourth), special-teamer Jordan Senn (seventh), punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. (eighth), Newton (ninth), Johnson (ninth) and Olsen (10th).

One name that’s noticeably absent: linebacker Thomas Davis, who has put together the best season of his career two years after returning from his third ACL surgery.

Davis has 117 tackles – second-most on the team, and four sacks and two interceptions this year, all of which are career highs.

Working against Davis is the type of system he plays in. He’s an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, and that position isgrouped with some pseudo-defensive ends in 3-4 defenses.

“They got to figure out a way to separate (defensive) ends and linebackers,” Mitchell said. “He’s a true outside linebacker. And if he did rush every play I’m sure he would get just as many sacks as everyone else is getting. It’d be a catastrophe. If you look at what he’s doing, I don’t think two linebackers are playing the linebacker position better than our two linebackers.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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