Former Carolina Panthers turned free agent defensive end Greg Hardy will reportedly choose between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at some point Wednesday, according to several media reports. Hardy’s agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the pass rusher is in Dallas for a physical, and that the two sides have held “ongoing negotiations” over the last day.
Hardy is likely to face a six-game suspension to start the 2015 season after he was found guilty of domestic violence charges last year, only to avoid any further legal trouble after the case was eventually dropped.
However, Hardy’s legal status apparently hasn’t diminished his value on the NFL’s free agent market, and now the 26-year-old Pro Bowler with 34.0 career sacks could significantly upgrade a Cowboys pass rush that ranked No. 28 in the league last season.
Based off some of the players Dallas has let go over the last two years, Hardy could serve as a major upgrade. The Cowboys released all-time franchise sack leader DeMarcus Ware before last season, and as a result the pass rush slipped precipitously from 34 sacks in 2013 to only 28 last year. Furthermore, Dallas allowed defensive tackle Henry Melton, who was second on the team with 5.0 sacks in 2014, to sign with Tampa Bay, and veteran defensive end Anthony Spencer remains unsigned.
The Cowboys still have last year’s sack leader in defensive end Jeremy Mincey, but at age 31 and his contract up at the end of next season, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will need a long-term solution along the edges of his defensive front to pair with 25-year-old defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford.
With Mincey coming around the right side and Hardy probably the left, the Cowboys could markedly improve their defensive pressure next season, especially in their division. In their six games against NFC East opponents, Dallas will face a New York Giants offensive line that was ninth in the NFL with 30 sacks allowed, a Philadelphia Eagles line that was 15 th with 32 sacks, and a porous Washington Redskins squad that was second-to-last with 58 sacks. The Redskins didn’t use free agency to spruce its frontline, so its possible Hardy could rack up a number of sacks against them next season in a Cowboys uniform.
Missing 15 games last season due to his legal woes, Hardy couldn’t build off his stellar 15.0 sack performance in 2013, or the 11.0 sacks he put up in 2012. But in the one game he did play, Hardy recorded a sack and appeared to be All-Pro form.
A year away from the game may effective Hardy’s timing off the line, but it’s certainly afforded him more rest than every other player who took the field in 2014. Any sort of nagging but not serious injury has likely healed, and Hardy should be 100 percent by the time he takes the field next season.
Marinelli’s defensive schemes have also worked well when he has a reliable edge rusher. During his three years as the Chicago Bears defensive coordinator, Marinelli was able to unleash defensive end Julius Peppers for 30.5 sacks from 2010 to 2012. That kind of pressure helped Chicago rank no lower than fifth and as high as first in total takeaways during Marinelli’s tenure. The Bears were also ranked No. 5 in interceptions forced in 2010, and No. 6 in 2011, and No. 1 in 2012 -- a fact contributable to a pass rusher like Peppers forcing quarterbacks into mistakes.
Peppers also had a serviceable running mate working the other side of the line, a role Mincey could play to Hardy. In 2012, it was Corey Wooten, in 2011 it was Melton and 2010 Israel Idonije, all acting in concert with Peppers in Chicago.
Hardy’s presence would also cut down on the pressure Dallas’ No. 26th secondary faced last season. Opposing teams challenged the Cowboys secondary on first down 195 times last season, a middling number when compared to the rest of the league, but on third down Dallas was tested 204 times with a pass on third down and gave up the conversion 43.6 percent of the time, the sixth-worst percentage in the NFL and something Hardy can squelch immediately.
If Hardy winds up in Dallas, the Cowboys could own one of the best pass-rushing units in the NFL next season.