Panthers teammates want to see Greg Hardy back

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Defensive end Greg Hardy’s teammates want to see him back in a Carolina Panthers’ uniform next season.

Hardy was convicted on two counts of domestic violence last July, but is appealing the decision. A jury trial date has not yet been established.

Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list following the conviction and only played in one game for the Panthers in 2014. He still collected $13.1 million this season as Carolina’s franchise player.

He will become an unrestricted free agent in March.

”A guy of that caliber, we need him,” Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said Sunday as players cleaned out their lockers a day after a season-ending 31-17 loss to Seattle in an NFC divisional playoff game.

”I mean, hands down I would welcome him back, and relish the chance to play with that guy again.”

Norman called Hardy, who had 15 sacks in 2013, a ”rock” for the Panthers on defense.

”He’s that guy that takes us to a whole other level,” Norman said.

Norman said he doesn’t condone domestic violence, but said ”at the end of the day the man’s got to make a living. He’s got to work. He’s got a job to do.”

Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards also said he wants to see Hardy back in Carolina – even if his conviction isn’t overturned.

”If he pays his dues and serves his time, then he serves his time,” Edwards said.

Norman said he spoke to Hardy on Sunday in the locker room and said the defensive end told him he wants to re-sign with Carolina.

”He even told me he will play for free,” Norman said.

Whether or not owner Jerry Richardson would consider re-signing Hardy remains to be seen. Richardson spoke out against domestic violence in an emotional speech after Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list last year.

The Panthers (8-9-1) won their second straight NFC South title this season, but their season ended abruptly after a five-game win streak.

It capped a bizarre season that included quarterback Cam Newton fracturing two bones in his back in an automobile wreck, coach Ron Rivera’s house catching fire and Hardy’s conviction.

Things to watch this offseason from the Panthers:

NEWTON’S FUTURE: The biggest question for the Panthers entering the offseason is addressing Newton’s long-term future. The Panthers picked up the fifth-year option on Newton’s rookie deal earlier this season and are set to pay him $14.6 million in 2015. But the team has said it would like to sign Newton to a long-term contract extension. Newton is 30-31-1 as Carolina’s starting quarterback in the regular season and 1-2 in the postseason.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: The Panthers found continuity on their offensive line the past seven games of the season with right tackle Mike Remmers and guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell seemingly cementing jobs in the future. However, the big question will be what they do at left tackle with Byron Bell, who is set to hit the free agent market. Bell is well liked by coaches, but the Panthers won’t be able to overpay to keep him if they re-sign Newton.

SECONDARY FIRST: Russell Wilson was 8 of 8 passing for 177 yards and three touchdowns on third downs against the Panthers on Saturday night. That says a little something about the Panthers’ nickel defense. Carolina hasn’t invested much in its secondary, relying mostly on lower-round draft picks, undrafted players and low-cost aging veterans to fill those spots. The position is long overdue for an upgrade. The Panthers cut cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Charles Godfrey midseason and used Colin Jones, a backup safety and lifelong special teams player, as their nickel back. The Panthers have the 25th pick in the NFL draft and cornerback and offensive tackle are clear areas of need.

ADDING OPTIONS ON OFFENSE: The Panthers need to add some offensive options around Newton in the passing game. Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen both had 1,000-yard receiving seasons, but the team lacked a deep receiving threat.

WILLIAMS’ FUTURE: The Panthers have long had too much money invested in their running back position. They’re finally in a position where they could cut running back DeAngelo Williams, the team’s career leading rusher, and not have to take a huge salary cap hit. Jonathan Stewart re-emerged as a top-flight back, although he has had trouble staying healthy during his career.

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