The Carolina Panthers have until Thursday afternoon to use the franchise tag, something they're expected to do in order to make sure they keep one of their high-end free agents.
But which one?
While the Panthers have a number of players they'd like to keep, there are three which merit at least a thorough discussion. To tag a pending free agent, a team has to offer a one-year deal worth the average of the top five salaries at the position. The exact figures aren't known at the moment (largely because of the uncertainty that comes with the CBA negotiations), but the range of each deal is generally accepted.
Here's a look at the three main candidates for the Panthers to tag, with the pros and cons of each.
C Ryan Kalil
What it would cost: Around $10 million
Why you would: He's coming off two straight Pro Bowl appearances, giving him solid credentials as one of the best young players at his position in the game. He'll turn 26 before the draft, and it's easy to make a case he's still improving as a player. One of the more athletic interior blockers in the NFL, his ability to make blocks at the second level has been a big reason the Panthers have ran the ball well.
There would also be a lot of competition for his services if he hit the open market. Many teams are looking for a top flight center, but it would be reasonable to expect former college coach Pete Carroll in Seattle to offer Kalil a chance to return to his home coast if he was available. He's a California kid, not as rooted in the South as some of the other guys they're considering.
And to put it simply, the Panthers have built an identity as having a good offensive line, and blowing the middle out of it would be a major step back.
Why you wouldn't: The franchise tag number for centers is lumped into the same category as offensive tackles, which skews the numbers wildly. A long-term deal for Kalil would come in well under $10 million per year (closer to $7 million on average), meaning a one-time investment would be considered a de facto down payment on a long-term deal they'd surely be seeking.
There's also the small matter of risk, as a tag for him means you have to believe you're closer to a long-term deal with the others or take the chance of losing them.
DE Charles Johnson
What it would cost: Around $13 million
Why you would: Because he's exactly the kind of player the Panthers like to brag about.
Drafted in the third round in 2007 and developed behind quality players, he emerged when it was his turn to start. He posted 11.5 sacks last season (more than the departed Julius Peppers), and he did it for cheap ($1.101 million).
There would be an extreme market for his services as well. With former coach John Fox switching Denver to a 4-3, he needs a big-time pass-rusher. But unlike many other sack guys, Johnson has proven himself as a run-stopper as well, defined by his strength at the point of attack. He can be a force at either end position, which they can't all say.
Why you wouldn't: The simple economics of it all, and the air of mystery that still surrounds him.
A $13 million wallop for a guy with one solid year (he had 10.0 sacks in his first three), represents a bit more of a gamble than with the reliable Kalil.
There are those who wonder whether he's a naturally ascending player, or just another guy in a contract year putting up big numbers for his one payday.
If he leaves, it would also position them to take Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers with the top pick and proceed as they did in 2002, after drafting Peppers second overall.
RB DeAngelo Williams
What it would cost: Around $9.5 million
Why you would: Because with lingering uncertainty at quarterback, keeping the team's best unit intact is attractive.
There's no better protection for a quarterback in any offense than a solid run game, and there's not a better tandem in the league than Williams and the under-contract Jonathan Stewart. With those two, there's a near-guarantee you can run well even if one's injured, as both have proven capable of being the lead back.
Why you wouldn't: He'll turn 28 the week of the draft, and running backs age in dog years.
He's also got a good bit of mileage on him, not so much from his time-share days here (first with DeShaun Foster, then with Stewart) but from college. He had over 900 touches in his final three years at Memphis, where he was the focal point of the offense.
There's also the small matter of Mike Goodson. When Williams was out late in the season, the Panthers ran sufficiently well with Goodson and Stewart working together. So from a standpoint of being cost-effective, the Panthers have shown they can get by with less of an investment at running back.
-- Darin Gantt