Carolina Panthers: Gano signs extension; Hardy gets tag

The Carolina Panthers resigned kicker Graham Gano to a 4-year extension Friday, the first of the Panthers’ free agents to resign with the team. The deal is reportedly worth $12.4M, making Gano one of the highest paid kickers in the NFL. Gano, 27 on April 9th, was set to be an unrestricted free agent March 11th.

Head coach Ron Rivera was happy to get the deal done. “The special teams unit was a large part of our success last year and we are excited to keep Graham as a part of our team,” Rivera said in a statement. “Graham has shown range and accuracy in his field goal kicking, and his strong leg has been a weapon for us on kickoffs.”

Although Gano received the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker in college, he was undrafted out of Florida State University in 2009. Gano has since become one of the best kickers in the NFL, making all 42 PATs and 24 of 27 FGs (88.9%) in 2013, including 6 of 6 from 50-plus-yards. Perhaps as important was Gano’s touchback rate, 77.8%, the highest since 1994; Gano’s touchback rate was crucial to the league’s second-ranked defense.

Gano will again anchor a special teams unit that was critical to the team’s success in a conference comprised of several stout defenses. “I feel like I really found my kicking form, and now I’m just going to try to keep on improving,” Gano told Panthers.com. “I’m very excited for my family. This is the place I’ve wanted to be all along. I love this organization and love our fans. I feel very blessed and fortunate.”

Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano signed a 4-year extension Friday.

Also making headlines in Charlotte Friday was the Panthers using the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy, a deal that should be worth ~ $12.5M. The recent retirement of stalwart tackle Jordan Gross and restructuring of several large contracts cleared salary cap space for the Panthers to use the franchise tag on Hardy. This will be the 5th time the Panthers have used the franchise tag in team history: Punter Todd Suaerbrun (2003), tackle Jordan Gross (2008), defensive end Julius Peppers (2009), and center Ryan Kalil (2011).

Tagging Hardy keeps the league’s best pass rushing duo intact, as Hardy and left end Charles Johnson helped the Panthers sack the quarterback a league leading 60 times in 2013. Hardy was second in the NFL with 15 sacks, still well short of his 2013 preseason prediction of 50, but still impressive enough to warrant the second-most expensive franchise tag in the league. Johnson, 8th in the league with 11 sacks in 2013, may be asked to restructure his contract again in 2014 to accommodate future signings; Johnson’s cap hit is expected to be over $16M next year.

The news of Gano and Hardy resigning comes at a good time, as the news out of Carolina in recent days has not been so positive. In addition to the unexpected retirement of Gross, star wide receiver Steve Smith recently expressed displeasure over general manager Dave Gettleman’s comments that the receiver’s contract and status with the team would be the subject of evaluation. Despite his selfless service over the years and being widely considered the heart of the team, the obvious cannot be overlooked.

Smith’s current contract would cost the Panthers more than $20M against the cap over the next three seasons, and the biggest cap hit, $12M in the final year, comes when the wide receiver will be 37-years-old. Using the franchise tag for Hardy in 2014 is nice, but the Panthers want to sign Hardy long term and their motives for quarterback Cam Newton cannot be overstated.

Carolina Panthers

WR Steve Smith took issue with recent comments from GM Dave Gettleman.

According to multiple sources, new television contracts could increase the salary cap another $12M in 2015 to $145M, but it still may not be enough to sign two of the most sought-after players in the league. If the Panthers want to resign the team’s two most important players, it could mean restructuring Smith’s contract, which could mean the end of his time in Carolina.

Some point to Carolina’s lack of depth at WR as potential leverage for Smith, but Carolina’s run-heavy offense, superior short-pass game, and a strong draft class and free agent market make Smith’s cap-heavy contract hard to justify. The departure of Smith may not be the most fan-friendly move, but a necessary move to ensure future success. There’s always room for new fan favorites. I like Graham Gano.

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