Seizing an Opportunity
After the departure of both Tyler Brayton and Everette Brown in the offseason Hardy was left almost uncontested for the starting gig that he claimed opposite Charles Johnson under new head coach Ron Rivera. Only three defenders played more snaps for the Panthers last season and Hardy seized the chance to show his full range of skills in his 904 plays.
What he showed was an expanded version of his rookie season, flashes of brilliance but some infuriating inconsistency as well. Displays such as his seven-pressure game in Arizona during Week 1 and a phenomenal display against the Vikings in Week 8 give a tantalizing glimpse of the Panthers’ potential to have one of the best defensive end pairings in the league. But that excitement was tempered by his finish to the season and some dreadful performances in run defenses sprinkled throughout. After finishing 2011 with a grade of -6.7 in his final four games, you have to wonder whether the heavy workload was simply too much for him. Had he stopped in Week 13, his overall grade would have been a mightily impressive +12.9, a ranking around the Top 20 defensive ends in the league.
That can easily be remedied by spelling him more frequently, but what Hardy needs to work on from 2011 is setting the edge on defense against tight ends. Too often in 2011 he was easily sealed inside by tight ends and lead blockers, many of whom are far from exceptional at that job. At his size he should not be getting bullied by tight ends, but his inconsistent play on the edge was a contributing factor to the Panthers having one of the worst outside run defenses in the league last season. He has made plays in his first two seasons against quality edge blockers but the consistency has not been there as he has struggled to strike the balance between setting the edge and attacking the passer within a single performance.
The Next Step
Hardy is more than capable of making the strides necessary to give Carolina an outstanding pair of defensive ends. His eight batted passes were second to only Calais Campbell, more even than Jason Pierre-Paul during the regular season. His 33 QB hurries, albeit on a high number of snaps, were as many as the likes of Terrell Suggs, Dwight Freeney and Jared Allen. If he can only avoid hitting the wall he struck late last season and find that elusive balance between run defense and pass rush, he is primed to explode as a superstar defensive end, not only in his division, but league wide.