Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams spent the past two seasons looking for more carries.
Williams should get them this year.
After meeting with a foot specialist on Tuesday about his surgically repaired right ankle, Jonathan Stewart –Williams’ backfield mate – will begin the season on the physically unable to perform list.
Stewart, who has been on the preseason PUP list, will be out a minimum of six weeks and is eligible to return in Week 7. He will miss at least five games (the Panthers have a bye in Week 4).
Stewart has not played or practiced since re-injuring his right ankle last November during a Monday night game at Philadelphia. He underwent surgery on both of his ankles during the offseason, including an arthroscopic procedure to clean up loose bodies in his right ankle – the one still giving him trouble.
“I can spend all my energy being disappointed, or spend all my energy preparing myself,” Stewart said following Tuesday’s practice. “It’s just got to heal up.”
Stewart met Tuesday with Panthers team doctor Robert Anderson, a nationally known foot and ankle surgeon. Stewart said he still feels pain in the ankle.
“Our doctors and trainers have been going at it, figuring things out – solutions here and there,” Stewart said. “We’ve put a lot of brainpower behind it. So we’re working at it.”
“He’s made some big strides, some real good things have happened,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera added. “It’s just they’re not going to happen soon enough. So in order to help us as a football team, this is the best move that we could make.”
Stewart, 26, signed a five-year, $36.5million contract extension in 2012. He restructured it during the offseason, making a slight adjustment to help the Panthers’ salary cap position in future years.
When healthy, the 5-foot-10, 235-pound Stewart gives the Panthers a tough, between-the-tackles back who is difficult to bring down on first contact. He’s also a good receiver out of the backfield: His 47 catches and 413 receiving yards in 2011 were the most by a Panthers running back.
The Panthers have been criticized for investing so much in Stewart and Williams, as well as adding fullback Mike Tolbert to the mix last year. But that running back depth could be tested during the early portion of this season.
In addition to Stewart, Tolbert has yet to play in a preseason game as he recovers from a hamstring injury. Rivera said he is hopeful – “fingers crossed” – Tolbert will be back for the Week 1 game against Seattle.
Rookie running back Kenjon Barner, the sixth-round pick from Oregon, has been out since spraining his ankle last week against Baltimore. Barner is still wearing a protective boot, and Rivera called his status day-to-day.
That leaves Williams, the franchise’s career rushing leader, and a pair of undrafted backs in Tauren Poole and Armond Smith, who have six career carries between them – all by Smith.
Rivera doesn’t anticipate the Panthers signing any free-agent backs.
“We feel good about DeAngelo and the young running backs that we have in place right now,” Rivera said. “And we’ll go forward with those guys.”
Williams became an expensive complementary piece in two seasons with former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, now the coach in Cleveland. He was benched last season before Stewart was hurt, and watched Cam Newton become the first quarterback to lead his team in rushing since Donovan McNabb in 2000.
But Williams will get the bulk of the work with Stewart out. In an exhibition loss to Philadelphia two weeks ago, Williams had 12 first-half carries for 39 yards before sitting out the second half.
Meanwhile, Stewart will continue his rehabilitation with the hopes of returning as soon as he’s eligible. He said Anderson and the training staff have not yet set a timetable for when he can begin running.
“As of right now, just taking it day by day as I’ve been. Just be there for my teammates and bring as much positive energy as I can,” Stewart said. “We start next week and we’ve got a long season ahead of us, and I intend to be back.”
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