Greg Hardy was in midseason form Thursday – playing and talking.

The Carolina Panthers' trash-talking defensive end got leaner during the offseason, dropping nearly 15 pounds. He’s hoping to improve his speed-rush and prove his breakthrough 2012 season was not a fluke.

Hardy might have lost weight, but he hasn't lost his gift of gab.

In a five-minute interview, Hardy referenced a fictitious NASCAR driver, invited critics to kiss his backside, said he's more interested in winning than money and that he plans to rank among the league leaders in sacks.

“I'm just trying to get more,” Hardy said. “I talk a lot of trash, so I'm just making sure I step my game up this year from what it was and try not to make as many mistakes.”

Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010, collected 11 sacks in 2012 after finishing with seven his first two seasons combined. Hardy's emergence, combined with another strong season by defensive end Charles Johnson, gave the Panthers one of the league's top pass-rushing tandems.

Now a lot of critics want to see Hardy do it again.

“What does Ricky Bobby say? 'With all due respect,' they can kiss my butt,” said Hardy, referring to Will Ferrell's character in the movie, “Talladega Nights.”

“I feel like I'm the best to ever live,” Hardy added. “And if I'm not, I'll be here tomorrow and Monday fixing that problem.”

Hardy's problem late in his college career at Ole Miss and early in his NFL career is that his production did not match his physical ability and potential. Injuries and character questions caused Hardy to drop to the sixth round, where the Panthers took him with the 175th pick – behind Armanti Edwards and Eric Norwood.

Hardy showed flashes of greatness immediately – blocking a punt that resulted in a safety and forcing a fumble in his first NFL game, against the Giants. But he didn't put it all together until last season, when he became a pass-rushing force despite breaking his thumb in Week 3 and wearing a “big black cast” on his hand for much of the season.

The timing of Hardy's breakout year seems fortuitous. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, approached the Panthers during the offseason about a contract extension for Hardy, who will make $1.35 million in the final year of his rookie deal.

The only issues: The Panthers' future salary caps still need massaging, and the market for defensive ends has cooled since Johnson signed his six-year, $76 million extension two years ago.

“I'm getting some money this year. It's more than I ever made in my life,” Hardy said after the Panthers' practice Thursday morning. “I'm looking toward a championship. I know I'm going to play good. I know Drew's the best agent in the game.”