Carolina Panthers

Tolbert to be sidelined 2 months with hairline fracture below knee

The Carolina Panthers will be without Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert for a minimum of two months, the latest injury blow to the team’s running back rotation.

The Panthers on Tuesday placed Tolbert on injured reserve with the designation to return. Tolbert has a hairline fracture in his left leg below his knee but will not require surgery, according to a league source.

Teams may use the so-called “short-term” injured reserve only once during the season, and the designated player is not eligible to play for a minimum of eight weeks.

Tolbert, who went to his first Pro Bowl last season after leading the Panthers with seven total touchdowns, can begin practicing with the team in six weeks. He can rejoin the active roster Nov. 18, which falls during the team’s bye week.

The Nov. 30 trip to Minnesota in Week 13 would be the earliest Tolbert could play.

Rather than sign a running back to fill Tolbert’s roster spot, the Panthers re-signed linebacker D.J. Smith, who started the season on Carolina’s practice squad. He was released Sept. 3.

The signing of Smith signals a level of concern over the health of veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, who left Sunday night’s loss to Pittsburgh with an apparent left leg injury.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera would not specify Davis’ injury Monday when meeting with reporters, other than to say it was not “catastrophic” and did not involve his right knee, which has undergone three ACL surgeries.

Smith, 25, a Charlotte native who played at Independence and Appalachian State, was a sixth-round pick by Green Bay in 2011. He started nine games in two seasons with the Packers before appearing in one game for Houston last year.

Tolbert joins a lengthy list of running backs on the injury report.

Jonathan Stewart, who missed 17 games the past two seasons with ankle and knee injuries, has a severely sprained right knee that has his status for this week’s game at Baltimore in doubt. Rivera said Stewart would not practice until Friday at the earliest.

Stewart’s injury is to the same knee that sidelined him for the final five weeks last season after he tore his MCL.

The Panthers hope DeAngelo Williams can return this week. Williams, the franchise’s all-time rushing leader, missed the past two games with a hamstring issue but is expected to practice Wednesday, according to Rivera.

The injuries have extended to the backups.

Third-string running back Fozzy Whittaker sat out the Steelers’ game with a pulled quadriceps. His status for this week is uncertain.

But the Panthers have a pair of healthy rookie running backs: Darrin Reaves, who had a good training camp, was activated from the practice squad last weekend, while Lache Seastrunk was recently added to the practice squad.

Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel should see his playing time increase in Tolbert’s absence. Brockel is a versatile blocking back who has only four career carries.

Regardless of who’s in the backfield, Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he would not ignore the running game this week after the Panthers finished with a franchise-low 10 rushing attempts in the 37-19 loss to Pittsburgh. Carolina is 29th in the league in rushing with 72.3 yards a game.

“We’ve got to run the ball more,” Shula said. “I’ve got to call more runs and have more balance.”

Practice squad signing: The Panthers signed former Browns wide receiver Willie Snead to their practice squad Tuesday. Snead, 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, is an undrafted rookie from Ball State who was cut by Cleveland on Aug. 30.

Snead finished on Ball State’s career list in catches (214), receiving yards (2,940) and receiving touchdowns (25).

With the addition of Snead, the Panthers again have three receivers on the taxi squad. Former Jets wideout Stephen Hill and Marcus Lucas, an undrafted rookie from Missouri, are the others.

Jacksonville signed receiver Tavarres King off the Panthers’ practice squad last week.