With all the discussion directed towards the wide receivers on the Carolina Panthers, the NFC Southern champions field one of the most intriguing backfields in the league. With two former Pro Bowlers in DeAngelo Williams and the bruising Mike Tolbert as well as former thousand yard back Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers have a collective group of solid, proven running backs who have showed tremendous ability within the past three seasons. Yet injuries, age and production drop has Carolina potentially on the brink of a home run or a strike out with their backfield.
The all-time leading rusher in team history ran solidly last season though statistically William’s numbers would not stand out among the Adrian Peterson and Lesean McCoys of the league. Starting in fifteen games, DeAngelo was a pleasant surprise catching balls out the backfield; catching only 26 passes, yet averaging nearly 13 yards each reception. The most consistent member of the running back position, Williams should once again become the main workhorse for the Panthers running attack. With his climbing age (31 years old) and injury history, the wear and tear was seen on Williams as the season progressed– he recorded his lowest rushing average since 2010 with only 4.2 yards a carry last season. Carolina may wish to limit the carries and poundings Williams takes throughout the year to keep DeAngelo fresh for the stretch run of the season in November and December.
Unfortuantely, due to injuries, Stewart was not able to play more than six games last season. Joining the team after the mandatory seven week stint on the PUB list, Stewart was out of practice early in his return, and was unable to get back to form before a MCL tear in the week 14 thriller against New Orleans ended his frustrating season. Signed to a five year extension worth $36.5 million before the 2012 season, Stewart has yet to earn the deal he signed two years ago, failing to play in more than 15 games and yet to rush for more than 51 yards in those games played since signing the contract. Stewart will continue his role in the Panthers rushing attack as a complement to Williams and (barring any major injury) will seek to show Panthers nation that he deserved his contract. Either that, or this could be his last season in a Carolina uniform.
The bowling ball to the elusiveness of Williams and Stewart, Tolbert was one of the most important players on the Carolina offense. Excellent in short yard attempts, Tolbert had a key role establishing the mysticism around Riverboat Ron as Carolina attempted 13 fourth downs and found success on ten of those attempts; best in the conference at 76 percent and third best overall. A strong blocker for the passing attack, on the 336 passing plays he was on the field, Tolbert stayed in to block 121 of those times and allowed only 11 pressures and one sack in that period. A fullback by position, with his size and speed (5’9, 245 pounds), Tolbert was a bison running downhill last season, and was the most consistent back for the Carolina Panthers.
A six round selection of the 2013 draft, the former Oregon Duck has only seen limited time in the backfield of Carolina. With only six carries for seven yards as well as two catches for seven yards, Barner’s impact was seen more as a special team member where he also had a limited role. With only 23 snaps on offense, it is difficult to evaluate how Barner played or his expectations for the upcoming season. Until perhaps the 2015 season when Jonathan Stewart and/or DeAngelo Williams could be released without penalty, Barner will find it difficult cracking into the Carolina backfield.