- Associated Press - Friday, February 28, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - The Panthers used the franchise tag on Greg Hardy on Friday, preventing the outspoken defensive end from hitting the free agent market.

Hardy will make $12.45 million next season.

The team also re-signed kicker Graham Gano to a four-year contract. Financial terms of that deal were not released.

Hardy, known by teammates as “The Kraken,” tied a franchise single-season record with 15 sacks in 2013 and was selected second-team All-Pro by The Associated Press. SportsIllustrated.com ranked Hardy as this offseason’s top NFL free agent.

Hardy led the Panthers with 38 quarterback pressures and posted a career-high 67 tackles last season.

“We are very pleased that Greg will be back with the Panthers next season,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said in a release. “He was a big reason we were able to lead the league in sacks last year and keeps our defensive line intact.”

The Panthers have until July 15 to sign Hardy to a long-term contract extension. After that date they can’t discuss a contract extension until after the season is over.

“The franchise mechanism gives us time to secure the services of a very good player while we continue to look at the future of Greg with the Carolina Panthers,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said in a release. “We have had great dialogue with both Greg and his agent. It was important to keep our defensive front together.”

Hardy and Charles Johnson are the only set of teammates to record 10 or more sacks in each of the last two seasons. They have combined for 49.5 sacks during that span, tied for most in the NFL.

A former sixth-round draft pick out of Mississippi, Hardy made the league veteran minimum salary last year.

Hardy said in January he would have no problem if the Panthers used the franchise tag on him after being selected to his first Pro Bowl.

“I would love a franchise (tag), man,” Hardy said prior to the playoffs. “Add another year on my career. Get to play football a little bit longer without a contract. Another year to be in Carolina just to get them a chance to get their fiscal responsibilities in order so we can be here forever, like Steve Smith and a lot of other guys.”

Hardy becomes the fifth player in Panthers history to receive the franchise tag, joining punter Todd Sauerbrun (2003), tackle Jordan Gross (2008), defensive end Julius Peppers (2009) and center Ryan Kalil (2011).

Gano helps solidify the team’s kicking situation.

The 26-year-old Gano is coming off a successful season, converting 24 of 27 field goal attempts while helping the team to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title.

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