In PFR’s recent ranking of the best defensive free agents remaining on the board, defensive end Greg Hardy placed third, but as we noted in the post, the former Panthers and Cowboys edge rusher would probably rank first based on talent alone. We don’t intend to rehash Hardy’s off-the-field incidents, and it’s perfectly legitimate to argue that you wouldn’t want someone like Hardy on your favorite team. But the fact remains that NFL clubs will typically risk negative backlash if a player offers enough upside, and Hardy does.
Hardy, 27, has recently been lobbying for an NFL opportunity, and his agent Drew Rosenhaus is telling teams that his client has taken the necessary steps to change his behavior. But despite his double-digit sack potential, the “prevailing opinion” around the league is that nobody wants Hardy, as Ed Werder of ESPN.com reported earlier this month — one general manager called Hardy a “very hard sell,” while another called him “toxic.”
But eventually, the price will fall enough that Hardy — who, even in a down season, graded as a top-30 edge rusher per Pro Football Focus — will find a job. Let’s take a look at a few potential destinations that could make sense for Hardy…
- Atlanta Falcons — The Falcons finished dead last in the NFL with only 19 sacks in 2016, so Hardy would obviously represent a strong addition to the club’s pass rush. But Hardy is actually a solid run defender, as well, and Atlanta needs help on early downs — former No. 8 overall pick Vic Beasley is expected to play linebacker on running downs, while the re-signed Adrian Clayborn is more a edge rush specialist. Derrick Shelby was an underrated signing during the offseason, but veteran Tyson Jackson is getting at look at defensive tackle and could be in danger of being released. End, then, remains a position of need for the Falcons, and Hardy could be an answer.
- Buffalo Bills — Rex Ryan has shown a penchant for two things during his time as a head coach: bravado (as evidenced by Friday’s interview with Jenny Vrentas of Sports Illustrated), and a willingness to add players with some history of off-the-field issues. In Buffalo, Ryan & Co. have added Richie Incognito, Percy Harvin, and IK Enemkpali, and while none of that trio’s troubling incidents rival Hardy’s, Ryan hasn’t been shy about signing character risks. The Bills are reportedly switching to a stricter 3-4 defense in 2016, so Hardy, who is a prototypical 4-3 end, might not be a fit. But Ryan could surely find a way to use a rusher like Hardy, perhaps in some kind of hybrid role off the edge.
- Dallas Cowboys — Yes, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones ruled out re-signing Hardy last month, signalling that that door is officially closed. But scenarios change, and Dallas management could begin to sweat when wondering who will man defensive end while Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory serve their four-game suspensions. Restricted free agent addition Benson Mayowa probably isn’t cut out for a starting role, while Jeremy Mincey who played on more than a third of the Cowboys’ snaps last season, remains unsigned. It wouldn’t be shocking for Dallas to reverse its stance on Hardy as the regular season approaches, but then again, the club reportedly isn’t interested in fellow pass rusher Dwight Freeney, so perhaps the Cowboys are simply satisfied with their internal options.
- Detroit Lions — The Lions defense wasn’t quite as effective in 2015 after losing both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley from their defensive line, falling from No. 3 to No. 18 in Football Outsider’ DVOA despite a major progression from Ezekiel Ansah, who will obviously man one defensive end spot again in 2016. On the other side, Devin Taylor is a capable player, while free agent signing Wallace Gilberry is decent in a specific, limited role. But Hardy would change things immensely, forcing opposing offenses to account for two fearsome rushers on the edges. A front four of Haloti Ngata, rookie A’Shawn Robinson, Ansah, and Hardy could help vault Detroit’s defensive unit back into the upper echelon.
- New Orleans Saints — At 26.1% below average (per DVOA), the Saints defense ranked as the NFL’s worst unit since 2000 — only five other clubs have topped the 20% mark, and none reached New Orleans’ lows. The Saints also ranked 30th in adjusted sack rate, and though they added Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley to help on the interior, they could still use another edge presence opposite Cameron Jordan. Hardy would obviously fit that description, but after releasing Junior Galette (and carrying $12.1MM in dead money in 2016) because of his character questions, New Orleans might not want to take a similar risk.
- Oakland Raiders — After ranking in the middle of the pack in most defensive statistics in 2016, the Raiders spent most of the offseason upgrading its unit, inking Bruce Irvin, Aldon Smith, Sean Smith, and Reggie Nelson while using a first-round pick on safety Karl Joseph. Hardy could be the final piece on Oakland’s front seven, helping out at end on early downs before sliding inside on passing downs. A team on the rise like the Raiders might risk the public relations backlash that will come with signing Hardy in order to add a talent that could push them over the top. However, it should be noted that owner Mark Davis has been very vocal about domestic abuse and has said that he has “zero tolerance” for it.
- Philadelphia Eagles — The Eagles are transitioning to a 4-3 defense in 2016, and they actually have a sound pair of ends in Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry, a duo that figures to fit much better in an even front than an odd alignment (Connor Barwin, too, is projected to move to end, but there’s disagreement as to whether his conversion will be as smooth). A defensive coordinator like Jim Schwartz always want more pass rushers at his disposal, so Hardy could make some sense. But I have my doubts that owner Jeffrey Lurie and/or de facto general manager Howie Roseman would be willing to add a personality like Hardy.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers — The Buccaneers reportedly considered Hardy prior to the 2015 season, and general manager Jason Licht said in March that the club had not discussed the possiblity of signing Hardy this time around. That stance could obviously change if Hardy’s price drops enough, and Tampa Bay could certainly use him, as while the club has a solid rotation at defensive end consisting of Robert Ayers, Noah Spence, William Gholston, Jacques Smith, and George Johnson, it doesn’t have a singular talent like Hardy.
Photo via Pro Football Rumors on Instagram.