DeAngelo Williams will likely be a free agent when the new collective bargaining agreement is reached. (Photo by John Clark)
CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers have decided to use the franchise tag on center Ryan Kalil, according to general manager Marty Hurney.
That means running back DeAngelo Williams and defensive end Charles Johnson will hit the free agent market if not re-signed, although exactly when that signing period begins remains uncertain with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire March 4.
"It was a difficult decision because we have several players we could have used it on but we only had one tag," general manager Marty Hurney said. "We decided it was important to make sure we keep our offensive line together."
Hurney emphasized Carolina's plans are to attempt to re-sign all of its core free agents, including Johnson and Williams.
"Hopefully we've created an environment here where our players want to be back," Hurney said. "I think they do."
Like many teams around the NFL, the Panthers haven't re-signed their big-ticket free agents with no deal with the players union in place. In short, many owners aren't willing to pay players a large signing bonus with the chance of a lockout looming.
Kalil, a former second-round draft pick out of USC who has played in the last two Pro Bowls for the Panthers, will make more than $10 million next season after earning just $550,000 last season.
There's a good chance he will look to sign a long-term contract extension before the season begins.
Kalil was set to become a free agent when the new league year begins. The non‐exclusive franchise player designation gives Carolina a first‐refusal right to match within seven days an offer sheet given to Kalil by another team. The Panthers would retain Kalil by matching the offer or would be compensated with two first‐round draft picks if they didn’t match.
As a part of the franchise tag, the Panthers must tender a minimum one‐year qualifying offer of the average of the top five salaries from last season at Kalil’s position or 120 percent of his 2010 salary, whichever is greater.
Kalil started all 16 games this past season and contributed to a rushing attack that averaged 115.4 rushing yards per game, 13th best in the NFL. Carolina rushed for more than 100 yards in eight of its final nine games, averaging 138.6 yards over that span. In 2009, Kalil helped Williams and Jonathan Stewart become the first duo in NFL history to top 1,100 yards rushing in the same season.
The move effectively means Williams and Johnson could hit the free agent market -- and the Panthers can do nothing to stop them from doing so -- but Hurney has made it clear in the past that the team's top priority is re-sign their core free agents.
All signs point to Johnson returning.
Johnson, for one, said he was glad the Panthers didn't use the franchise tag on him.
But he quickly added that he wants to return to the Panthers next season with a long-term deal.
"Yeah, definitely," said Johnson, who enjoyed a breakout season with 11.5 sacks. "I hope I do. I've been here forever it seems and I don't want to relocate. I think we've had some success and will have more in the future."
Johnson said he spoke with coach Ron Rivera recently and likes what he's heard from him.
"He seems like a good good guy and I think sometimes change is good," Johnson said.
But Williams is a bit of an unknown. He'll be looking to cash in on perhaps his last big contract and may find it more lucrative to go play somewhere else ending his five-year run in Carolina. He's expected to receive a lot of interest from teams like Denver, New Orleans, Miami and Washington if he hits the free agent market.
Williams' best season came in 2008 when he ran for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns leading the Panthers to the NFC South division title. The following year Williams ran for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. This past year a foot injury ended Williams' season prematurely.
Carolina has other options at running back including Stewart, Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton.
This marks the fourth time that Carolina has used the franchise tag. The Panthers used it on defensive end Julius Peppers in 2009, on left tackle Jordan Gross in 2008 and on punter Todd Sauerbrun in 2003.