A year after taking over as the Carolina Panthers’ primary running back, Jonathan Stewart can start setting his sights on doing it again in 2016.
According to team and league sources, it’s probable the Panthers will retain Stewart after his near-1,000-yard season even though the team would save money against the cap if it parted ways with him.
But there’s less certainty about the other Pro Bowler in the Panthers’ backfield.
Fullback Mike Tolbert is coming off his second All-Pro season in three years but is an unrestricted free agent in a month. One of the most versatile offensive players on the team, Tolbert has seen a diminished role in the past two seasons.
Outside of those two backs, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne and Brandon Wegher are all under contract with Carolina for next season.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman liked what he got out of the group in 2015.
“Jonathan had a heck of a year,” Gettleman said last week. “Fozzy does what he does. Michael does what he does. We got a chance to see Cap (Artis-Payne) and he did some nice things while Jonathan was out. We like Brandon Wegher.
“We’ll see. I’m certainly not unhappy with that group at all.”
Stewart turns 29 next month, but he doesn’t have the normal wear of a 29-year-old starting running back in the NFL. Stewart split carries with DeAngelo Williams for his first seven seasons, getting more than 200 rushes just once in that time span.
The Panthers had some reservations in 2012 about how Stewart would handle being “the guy.” They made him the starter in Week 7 of that season but worried he may have been tentative as the starter.
He was inactive for the final five games of that season and started the 2013 on the physically unable to perform list because of ankle injuries. But the Panthers loved how he took control of the starting position once the team jettisoned Williams last offseason.
Stewart rushed a career-high 242 times in 2015 for 989 yards, narrowly missing out on his second 1,000-rushing-yard season because of a foot sprain that caused him to miss the final three regular-season games. His 76.1 yards per game was the highest mark of his career.
Along with his hard running and ability to break tackles, Stewart also offers solid pass protection at close to 240 pounds.
Potential cap savings
Stewart is set to make a base salary of $5 million in 2016 with a cap hit of $9.55 million – the fourth-highest on the team behind Cam Newton, Charles Johnson and Ryan Kalil.
The Panthers could cut Stewart with the post-June 1 designation, which would save the team $4 million in cap space starting June 2. But there are two issues.
First, the Panthers aren’t in dire need of the cap relief. They’re estimated to be $20 million under the cap for 2016 with more cuts (such as defensive end Jared Allen’s $8.5 million cap number) to come.
And there isn’t a backup ready to take over what Stewart does. Whittaker is a change-of-pace back, and the Panthers don’t believe he can be an every-down back.
Artis-Payne, whom the Panthers picked in the fifth round of last year’s draft, is well-liked inside the building but had just 45 carries as a rookie. Plus, he still has a lot to learn in pass protection, which is crucial for Carolina.
What about Mike Tolbert?
The unknown for Carolina this offseason is Tolbert, whose four-year, $10 million contract is up. He earned his first All-Pro nod in 2013, when he had 361 rushing yards, 184 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns.
Between 2010 and 2013, Tolbert made his name in San Diego and Carolina as a goal-line back. He scored 31 rushing touchdowns in four seasons with an average distance of 2.6 yards per score – the shortest distance of any player with at least 11 touchdowns in the same span, according to Pro Football Reference.
Tolbert couldn’t get going in 2014 with a knee injury, and his role changed this past season with more blocking than touches.
The Panthers have been mum on their plans for Tolbert, though they’re expected to start contract talks with some free agents next week at the NFL combine. Carolina uses a fullback more than most NFL teams, so finding a replacement won’t be easy.
Plus, Tolbert has one of the biggest personalities on the team, and that matters to a team that rode a wave of personality to Super Bowl 50.
“Coach (Ron) Rivera, Mr. Gettleman had an opportunity to bring in certain players and the right character guys, the right type of guys and they’ve done a great job of it,” Tolbert said before the Super Bowl. “Now, that character building, team building that they put together has got us to this point.”