Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ Greg Hardy leaner, just as mean in 2013

jperson@charlotteobserver.comMay 23, 2013 

Greg Hardy was in midseason form Thursday – playing and talking.

The Carolina Panthers’ trash-talking defensive end got leaner during the offseason, dropping nearly 15 pounds. He’s hoping to improve his speed-rush and prove his breakthrough 2012 season was not a fluke.

Hardy might have lost weight, but he hasn’t lost his gift of gab.

In a five-minute interview, Hardy referenced a fictitious NASCAR driver, invited critics to kiss his backside, said he’s more interested in winning than money and that he plans to rank among the league leaders in sacks.

“I’m just trying to get more,” Hardy said. “I talk a lot of trash, so I’m just making sure I step my game up this year from what it was and try not to make as many mistakes.”

Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010, collected 11 sacks in 2012 after finishing with seven his first two seasons combined. Hardy’s emergence, combined with another strong season by defensive end Charles Johnson, gave the Panthers one of the league’s top pass-rushing tandems.

Now a lot of critics want to see Hardy do it again.

“What does Ricky Bobby say? ‘With all due respect,’ they can kiss my butt,” said Hardy, referring to Will Ferrell’s character in the movie, “Talladega Nights.”

“I feel like I’m the best to ever live,” Hardy added. “And if I’m not, I’ll be here tomorrow and Monday fixing that problem.”

Hardy’s problem late in his college career at Ole Miss and early in his NFL career is that his production did not match his physical ability and potential. Injuries and character questions caused Hardy to drop to the sixth round, where the Panthers took him with the 175th pick – behind Armanti Edwards and Eric Norwood.

Hardy showed flashes of greatness immediately – blocking a punt that resulted in a safety and forcing a fumble in his first NFL game, against the Giants. But he didn’t put it all together until last season, when he became a pass-rushing force despite breaking his thumb in Week 3 and wearing a “big black cast” on his hand for much of the season.

The timing of Hardy’s breakout year seems fortuitous. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, approached the Panthers during the offseason about a contract extension for Hardy, who will make $1.35 million in the final year of his rookie deal.

The only issues: The Panthers’ future salary caps still need massaging, and the market for defensive ends has cooled since Johnson signed his six-year, $76 million extension two years ago.

“I’m getting some money this year. It’s more than I ever made in my life,” Hardy said after the Panthers’ practice Thursday morning. “I’m looking toward a championship. I know I’m going to play good. I know Drew’s the best agent in the game.”

Hardy applauded the Panthers’ drafting of defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks. He believes their arrival will be good for the defense as a whole and the line in particular.

“They believe in us. That’s one of those situations where the front office shows by what they do that they’re backing us,’” Hardy said. “We needed middle help. ... They were like, ‘Listen, here’s the parts, man. Go win a championship.’

“We’re going to keep grinding. We’re going to keep working. It’s not about money, extensions and deals, and who we drafted, and how much money everybody got. It’s about how good we’re going to get,” Hardy continued. “If you thought last year was ridiculous, we’re going to take it to a whole other level because we’re starting from a higher point than we did last year.

“That’s what it’s all about for me. We’re already making more money than normal people, right?”

Hardy, at 6-foot-4, weighed 297 pounds last season, when he was asked to move to defensive tackle in obvious passing situations. That could be an option this year, but won’t be a necessity.

Hardy trimmed down to 283 in an effort to be faster off the edge.

“Speed kills,” he said.

But the Panthers don’t want Hardy hurting anyone in these shorts-and-helmets workouts.

“I’ve had to ask him to tone it down, which is hard to do,” coach Ron Rivera said. “You really don’t want to, but for the sake of guys not getting hurt out here. But he’s been outstanding, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch him practice.”

Fun to listen to him, too.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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