After tip-toeing through the first week of free agency with bargain-basement signings, the Dallas Cowboys finally made a bold albeit controversial move Wednesday, signing former Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy.
It’s a move that should dramatically improve the Cowboys in 2015.
Hardy, who missed 15 games last season after a North Carolina judge convicted him on domestic violence charges, signed a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth up to $13.1 million with bonuses on Wednesday.
His base salary for 2015 is $750,000. He has a workout bonus of $1.31 million. The workout bonus is paid out weekly. The deal includes per-game roster bonuses that would total $9.25 million for 16 games and $1.8 million in incentives based on sacks.
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There was no signing bonus so there is minimal risk by the Cowboys beyond the base salary. Hardy’s cap figure is a team-friendly $3.2 million for 2015.
It can be a big payday if Hardy earns it. Hardy has to be accountable and highly productive to get the bulk of the money.
“This agreement involved an important element of our defensive scheme, specifically the pass rush, at a position that we felt we needed to address this off-season. We entered this free agency period with the idea of utilizing key resources to help us on the defensive side of the ball,” owner Jerry Jones said in a statement. “Greg is a proven and experienced player whose production has allowed him to play at a Pro Bowl level. This is a one-year agreement that is incentive based and heavily weighted toward his participation in games.”
It’s also a controversial move because of his off-the-field issues.
Hardy is on the NFL commissioner’s exempt list because of a domestic violence conviction in July 2014. Hardy appealed, asking for a jury trial. But the case was eventually dismissed because his former girlfriend refused to cooperate with authorities and couldn’t be found to testify after reportedly receiving a financial settlement from Hardy.
The NFL is doing its own investigation and filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the district attorney to hand over material related to the case. Hardy could face a four-to-six game suspension this season, but the NFL may need the court records as evidence.
Hardy has denied his ex-girlfriend’s accusations that during an argument in May he choked her, threw her around and threatened to kill her.
“Obviously a great deal of our study was dedicated to the issue of domestic violence, and the recent events that associated Greg with that issue. We know that Greg’s status remains under review by the National Football League,” Jones said. “Our organization understands the very serious nature of domestic violence in our society and in our league. We know that Greg has a firm understanding of those issues as well.”
Hardy, 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, played in one game last season before being deactivated and going on the commissioner’s exempt list. The Cowboys put in the per-game roster bonuses as part of Hardy’s contract to cover a possible suspension.
The Cowboys have a history of giving players second chances. Defensive tackle Josh Brent is on the roster after being convicted of vehicular manslaughter in the death of teammate Jerry Brown. The Cowboys had a history with Brent and knew him well before the incident, allowing them some comfort in granting him a second chance.
Hardy’s extended two-day visit, which began on Tuesday, was used to get to know him better, paving the way for Wednesday’s signing.
The Cowboys recorded just 28 sacks last season and badly need pass-rushing help. Their inability to pressure the quarterback proved to be their demise in the NFC divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Defensive ends Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie, Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence combined for 9.5 sacks last season. Mincey had a team-leading six. Lawrence, a 2014 second-round pick, had none during the season, but picked up two in the playoffs. Selvie (3) and Spencer (0.5) are free agents and are not expected back.
Finding a player to affect the quarterback has been one of the team’s primary focal points of the off-season in free agency and the upcoming NFL draft.
The salary cap-strapped Cowboys didn’t want to pay market value for help in free agency, which is why Hardy and his risky off-the-field situation turned into a opportunity to strike it big without much risk or investment.
Hardy has 34 career sacks, including 11 in 2012 and a league-high 15 sacks in 2013 when he was named All-Pro. In five seasons with Carolina, Hardy had 204 tackles, 44 tackles for loss, 88 quarterback hurries, 14 pass breakups, seven forced fumbles and a fumble recovery while playing in 63 games with 40 starts.
Hardy is a good fit for defensive end Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 scheme. The disciplined Marinelli is likely a good fit for Hardy as he attempts to resurrect his career.
At age 26, Hardy still has a lot of good football left for a successful career if he can get his life in order off the field.
The pass-rush desperate Cowboys are willing to give him that chance.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.