"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 that Carolina's plans are to attempt to re-sign all of its core free agents, including Johnson and Williams.
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 a potential lockout looming.
"If you look at the three guys we could potentially have (tagged), it was a very difficult decision," coach Ron Rivera said. "We like all our guys. We want all our guys back. We had to make the decision that was best for us. It doesn't mean anything less about the other two guys people talked about potentially franchising. They're all tremendous football players and football players we believe we have to keep on our roster and keep as part of our team."
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 would have given 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. However, Kalil signed the tender, making his salary for 2011 guaranteed.
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.
Williams will surely be looking to cash in on perhaps his last big contract and may find it more lucrative to 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 include Stewart, Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton.
Coach Ron Rivera
"We do believe we have to have a franchise quarterback to lead your team for the next six, seven, eight years," Rivera said. "We certainly believe that. Do you have to take that guy or is he on our roster right now? That's all part of our evaluation process. We've gone through it in terms of our guys and we're going through it with guys potentially out there in the draft and we'll address it in free agency when that time comes. As we go through each month the elimination process will go on for us."
One of the players the Panthers plan to take a long look at is Auburn's Cam Newton.
"The process will be very extensive whether it's for Cam Newton or for other guys on our list," Rivera said. "We will go through that. We will explore every avenue. We also keep an open mind there's a lot of things these young guys will do when they're 18 years old. To judge people and not realize they have grown would be unfair. We're going to try to keep an open mind with everybody we do this process with. As I said, it's eight to 10 guys right now and we may whittle down that number but we will go through the process."
Rivera was asked how he thinks Newton will transition to the NFL level.
"That will be part of the process we go through to see how he fits what we want to do," Rivera said. "As far as skill-set goes, the young man has a tremendous talent. He has natural size and can run and has a tremendous arm.
"He's got a good pocket presence already. I think he's well on his way. Again, we have to go through that process. We're going to go to his workout, we're going to bring him in obviously and will go through that whole process to try to get a feel for how he learns. There are several guys we will go through that process as well. He's not the only guy. As I said, right now there are 8-10 young men that fit our needs very well."
When asked if the team is focused on a particular position with the No. 1 pick, Rivera said, "What we've done as far as the first pick is concerned is we've evaluated our own roster first and foremost to determine the positions we feel warrant the first pick. We've eliminated it to a specific number of players and we'll be watching those players very closely over the next month and a half, evaluating, trying to get as much information as we can and most certainly trying to see which player -- regardless of position -- fits our needs most urgently."
--Rivera talked at length at the Scouting Combine about the decision to hire former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott as his new coordinator.
"Sean is somebody I worked with in the past for five seasons and I got to know very well," Rivera said. "We very much shared the same philosophy in terms of being aggressive and an attacking style of defense that comes from being around Jim Johnson and everything kind of happened. The situation came about with coach (Andy) Reid when it was all happening and this was a chance to get Sean out of the shadow of Jim and a very difficult situation.
"But I think he handled that very well. He really showed his maturity so I was excited to have an opportunity to work with somebody I knew and somebody who shares the same philosophy. That's one of the biggest things. We share a lot of the same philosophy. When we're putting the staff together and thinking about who we wanted to be involved in, Sean really represented that very well."
--Defensive end Charles Johnson 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 guy and I think sometimes change is good," Johnson said.
--Rivera talked about the future of Panthers receiver Steve Smith at the Scouting Combine and offered no assurances as to whether or not he'll be back.
"Steve's a Carolina Panther," Rivera said. "That's a situation where as we go further on we'll address. We'll talk and he knows how I feel about things. My biggest thing is let us put it all together and see how it works, see if it's something that can work for all of us. That's probably the most important thing. But we have to do what's best for the Carolina Panthers."
--As a matter of covering their bases, the Panthers plan to hand out restricted free-agent tenders to several players with three, four and five years of NFL experience, including RB DeAngelo Williams and DE Charles Johnson, league sources confirmed Thursday morning.
However, it's unclear if the tenders will mean anything at all when/if a new collective bargaining agreement comes along.
--General manager Marty Hurney said the team's primary focus at the Scouting Combine will be gathering background information on potential draft picks and the physicals. The Panthers say they don't place as much emphasis in terms of speed and agility times as other teams might.
--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.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Hopefully we've created an environment here where our players want to be back. I think they do." -- GM Marty Hurney on the team's potential free agents.
Once the new CBA is in place, the Panthers plan to work toward re-signing five players whose contracts are set to expire: running back DeAngelo Williams, center Ryan Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson and linebackers Thomas Davis and James Anderson.
Williams' contract could be the trickiest as the Panthers know it will take big money to re-sign him and that they have other solid backs waiting in the wings in Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson.
The Panthers are confident they will re-sign Johnson, Kalil and Davis, but the jury is out on Williams and Anderson.
Cornerback Richard Marshall told reporters late in the season the Panthers don't want him back and he plans to hit the free-agent market.
The Panthers have a decision to make on quarterback Matt Moore, whose contract is also up. In all likelihood the Panthers are going to bring in a veteran to compete for the starting job so Moore could be out of luck, even though he's said he wants to return.
1. Quarterback: Even general manager Marty Hurney admits finding stability at the quarterback position is the team's most pressing need. Jimmy Clausen was 1-9 as a starter last season and had just three touchdown passes in those games. The Panthers planned to take Andrew Luck of Stanford with the No. 1 pick in the draft, but he decided to stay in school. Auburn's Cam Newton is a possibility for the Panthers, but might be a stretch at No. 1 given his raw skills. He's more of an option if the team were to trade down. Look for the Panthers to solidify this position either in the free-agent market or via trade.
2. Defensive tackle: The Panthers finished up with Derek Landri and Nick Hayden as their starting defensive tackles last season and former defensive line coach Brian Baker admitted the team desperately needs to upgrade here. Auburn's Nick Fairley seems to be the likely pick for the Panthers at No. 1 if everything checks out.
3. Tight end: In switching to an offense similar to that of the San Diego Chargers, the Panthers have made it pretty clear they need to upgrade at tight end. The Chargers have Antonio Gates, while the Panthers have Dante Rosario, Jeff King and Gary Barnidge. Each of those three have skills, but the Panthers want a guy who can do it all. Look for them to find that guy in free agency or via trade.
4. Cornerback: The Panthers could lose Richard Marshall in free agency - he has said the team informed his agent he won't be asked to come back next year - which means cornerback is a major issue. Marshall started last year alongside Chris Gamble before Gamble was benched for walking out of a team meeting. Captain Munnerlyn is a solid nickel back but not someone you want to count on as an every-down starter. LSU's Patrick Peterson is an option at No. 1, but the Panthers may look for veteran help here.
5. Right guard: The Panthers took a step back last season on the line largely because they couldn't find a suitable right guard. The injury to Jeff Otah forced Geoff Schwartz to move to right tackle and forced Mackenzy Bernadeau to start. Eventually Bernadeau was benched and Schwartz moved inside to guard and Garry Williams started at right tackle. If Otah can come back healthy maybe Schwartz can be the regular starter, but it wouldn't hurt for the Panthers to find a mid-level guard in free agency on the cheap.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.