PHOENIX -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy might have picked a bad time for a breakout season.
Drew Rosenhaus, Hardy's agent, has approached Panthers' officials about a contract extension following Hardy's breakthrough 2012 campaign, according to a league source with knowledge of the situation.
The initiation of contract talks comes at a trying time for both the salary cap-strapped Panthers and for free agent defensive ends, who stepped into a cool market this winter and have been taking considerably less money for fewer years than in previous off seasons.
After collecting a combined seven sacks his first two seasons, Hardy finished with 11 in 2012, to go along with 23 quarterback pressures and two forced fumbles. He and defensive end Charles Johnson (12.5) combined for 23.5 sacks, the second-highest total by a pass-rushing tandem in team history.
Hardy, 24, a sixth-round pick from Ole Miss in 2010, is entering the final year of his rookie deal. He is set to make $1.35 million this season after hitting escalators that increased his salary by nearly $800,000.
If they fail to reach an agreement on a long-term deal with Hardy, the Panthers could use the franchise tag to keep him. The tag for defensive ends cost teams $11.2 million this year.
Besides Hardy, the only other free agent of note for the Panthers in 2014 is wideout Brandon LaFell.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman appreciates Hardy's pass-rush ability, but said he has more pressing issues.
"He had a big year. He's versatile. Right now, it's not really a priority. I've got a few other things to deal with," Gettleman said Monday at the NFL owners meetings. "The situation right now is tough. I met with Greg about three weeks ago. I had a great conversation with him. I'm excited that he's on the club. I come from a history of pass-rushers. He is one. Time will tell."
The Panthers handed out a number of huge contracts two years ago to lock up several members of what then-general manager Marty Hurney called the team's "core." Johnson received the richest deal in franchise history -- a six-year, $76 million extension that included $32 million in guaranteed money.
The spending spree has put the Panthers in bad cap position for the next several years. They're currently about $3 million under this year's $123 million cap, and are not expected to make any major free agent acquisitions.
It has been a soft market for pass-rushing ends this winter. While ex-Baltimore defensive end Paul Kruger signed a five-year, $41 million contract with Cleveland that includes $20 million in guarantees, Cliff Avril (two years, $13 million) and Michael Bennett (one year, $5 million) settled for shorter contracts.
Next year's list of potential free agent defensive ends includes several established players, including Jared Allen, Justin Tuck and Michael Johnson, who was tagged by Cincinnati this year.
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