Who should Panthers tag as franchise?

Long before they use the No. 1 pick in the April college draft, the Carolina Panthers will have to make what could be the first key decision of coach Ron Rivera’s coaching tenure.

They have until next Thursday to decide if and how they’ll use the franchise tag. Rivera has said the team definitely will use the tag. In an interview last week, general manager Marty Hurney wouldn’t go quite that far, but said the team was still discussing its plans and would wait until close to the deadline before making anything official.

With owner Jerry Richardson leading the league’s labor negotiations, the Panthers long ago stopped signing players to contract extensions. That means the Panthers have strayed from their usual practice of locking up core players before they have a chance to test free agency.

They have three key players on the verge of free agency -- running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson and center Ryan Kalil. It’s pretty obvious the Panthers will use the tag on one of those three players, but it’s not obvious which one will get the tag. You can make a good case for each one.

Williams is Carolina’s best-all around back. He’s had some injury problems and the team does have Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson, who formed a nice duo much of last season. But the fact is Stewart also has had durability issues and I don’t know if the Panthers can afford to simply let Williams walk away in free agency.

They could take their chances and hope that they can re-sign Williams as soon as a labor deal gets done. That would allow them to protect either Johnson or Kalil with the franchise tag and you can make a strong argument for either of them.

Johnson stepped forward after Julius Peppers departed last season and produced 11.5 sacks. It likely will cost more than $10 million to franchise Johnson, but he could draw huge money if he hits free agency. He’s a strong pass rusher who is just entering his prime and that’s a rare commodity on the free-agent market.

Kalil has emerged as a Pro Bowler in the middle of an offensive line that, at least on paper, should be a Carolina strength. Take Kalil off that line and it might not be a strength.

The Panthers have some big decisions to make here. They have to decide which player staying will help them most. They also may have to decide which player leaving will hurt them least.