CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy will walk into court Monday with more than his guilt or innocence hanging in the balance.
Hardy's jury trial on misdemeanor domestic violence charges begins a month before the March 10 start of free agency. A guilty verdict would likely trigger a minimum, six-game suspension under the NFL's new personal conduct policy and cost Hardy millions on his next contract, industry experts say.
The fallout from a verdict of not guilty finding is less certain.
"It's foolish to think that someone won't (sign Hardy), assuming a not-guilty verdict," said former Panthers general manager Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "But it's also foolish to think there won't be ramifications to it."
This is a time of caution for the NFL, as the league struggles with what the appropriate punishment for domestic violence offenders should be. Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted he botched his handling of Ray Rice's domestic violence incident last year.
Under a barrage of public pressure, Goodell eventually extended Rice's initial, two-game suspension indefinitely after TMZ aired the video of Rice knocking out his then-fiancee.
Hardy and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was charged with whipping his 4-year-old son with a switch, both agreed to be placed on the commissioner's exempt list in September, which amounted to a paid suspension.
After the Panthers paid Hardy $13.1 million for playing in one game in 2014, the team is not expected to bring him back next season, according to multiple team sources.
But several current and former NFL agents say there will be other teams interested in Hardy, 26, a Pro Bowl pass rusher who is still in the prime of his career.
A District Court judge in July found Hardy guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder during an early-morning altercation at Hardy's uptown condo last May. He appealed for the jury trial that is scheduled to start Monday.
Given the current climate in the NFL toward domestic violence, a second guilty verdict could dry up the market for Hardy. Even after an arbitrator reinstated Rice in November, he sat out the final month of the regular season without signing with a team.
But Joel Corry, a former agent who writes about the business of the NFL for cbssports.com, called Hardy's situation a "litmus test for how much tolerance teams have for character issues with borderline superstar players, or very good players."
Corry believes Rice's decreased rushing statistics for Baltimore in 2013 also kept teams at bay.
"I think the only reason Ray Rice didn't have a job last year was because he averaged a little over three yards a carry (3.1) in 2013. If he averaged 5 yards a carry, somebody probably signs him and bites the bullet and worries about what happens later," Corry said.
"Hardy's going to get more of the benefit of the doubt just because he's a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his prime. So that's going to tip the scales for some owners that (think), I know you've got issues, but this guy can really play. If he couldn't really play, he might be out of the league."
Hardy's time away
Hardy has kept a relatively low profile since going on the exempt list in September.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Hardy stopped by Bank of America Stadium in early December to visit with teammates before the team left for its game in New Orleans.
A month later, on the day the players cleaned out their lockers after the playoff loss at Seattle, Hardy left a cryptic message for his teammates, with a reference to "Kraken," his nickname.
Rivera has said Hardy has continued working out, while Hardy's activity on social media indicates he has spent time in south Florida, as well as making music.
Hardy, who returned to Twitter in November as @OverlordKraken, posted on Jan. 3: "Be back entertaining and bleed n for u guys as soon as they let me." He also has posted occasional videos on Vine of himself singing.
A few Panthers players have said they would welcome Hardy back, none more colorfully than cornerback Josh Norman. Norman said last month he hoped he could play with Hardy again, regardless of the outcome of his trial.
"Either way, I want the man back," Norman said. "I want G. Hardy, the Kraken, back in this locker room."
But that does not appear to be the prevailing sentiment in the Panthers' front office.
Even before Hardy's arrest last spring, general manager Dave Gettleman had hedged his bets on Hardy by using the franchise tag on him rather than signing him to a long-term contract extension.
Gettleman drafted defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round of last year's draft, and did not rule out taking another edge pass rusher during a news conference last month.
While accepting an award against indifference in September, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson tearfully spoke out against violence toward women.
"When it comes to domestic violence, my stance is not one of indifference," Richardson said. "I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple."
Panthers and league officials both declined comment for this story.
The Panthers could choose to place the franchise tag on Hardy again, at a cost of $15.7 million this season. But the team has given no indication they plan to make any further investments in Hardy.
"I think it would be (unlikely), for reasons that are obvious and also (salary) cap reasons," said Andrew Brandt, an NFL business analyst for ESPN and Sports Illustrated. "That's a team that doesn't want to commit that kind of cap to one player, especially that player."
A short-term possibility
Given the climate in the NFL following the Rice video, Hardy's market value could take a hit even if he's acquitted, according to some agents interviewed by the Observer.
If Hardy's cleared, a couple of agents believe he would be better off taking a one- or two-year deal for about $5 million a year. That would given him a chance to rehabilitate his image, prove he can still play at a high level and set him up for another possible payday in free agency.
Brandt, who spent nine years in Green Bay's front office and has consulted for several NFL teams, worked with Philadelphia when the Eagles were negotiating with Michael Vick in 2009 after the quarterback's release from federal prison following his dogfighting conviction.
Brandt said Vick wanted a one-year deal but ended up signing a two-year contract with the Eagles. Two years later, the Eagles gave Vick a six-year, $100 million contract.
Brandt said if Hardy and agent Drew Rosenhaus don't get the offers they're hoping for, they could look for a short-term deal and hit the market again in a year or two. Rosenhaus has declined interview requests about Hardy.
Brandt believes teams interested in signing Hardy likely would communicate with the league about any possible discipline Hardy faces.
When Peterson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault on Nov. 18, Goodell suspended him through at least April 15 – a suspension that included the Vikings' final six games. Under a new conduct policy the NFL hastily implemented in August, first-time domestic abuse offenders receive a minimum six-game suspension.
Polian, the Panthers' first general manager who was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last weekend, said a six-game suspension would hurt Hardy's marketability "because of both the unavailability and the public stigma that would be associated with that."
"Now, I'm not one that believes he should never play again. I think that's far too harsh," Polian said. "But I think it would certainly affect his market value. A not-guilty verdict is another issue altogether. That's sort of uncharted territory."
Old rules or new?
Peterson and the NFL Players Association are in a legal fight with the league over Peterson's suspension, which the union claims would have been no more than two games under the old policy.
Because Hardy's arrest was in May, three months before the new policy was put in place, his attorneys likely would file a similar grievance if he's suspended six games.
All of that underscores how important the trial will be in determining Hardy's football future.
Jury selection is expected to begin Monday at the Mecklenburg County courthouse, and at least one legal expert thinks it could be nearly a week before a jury is finalized.
Whatever the outcome of his trial, Hardy should have a resolution well before the March 10 start of free agency.
"In the climate that we're in, it's bigger than a football decision," Brandt said. "You have to involve public relations, community relations ... suiteholders – a lot of marketing sides to just be in front of it."
But Corry, the former agent, sees possibilities.