Panthers' running back corps likely to remain intact

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 16, 2014 

Saints Panthers Football

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) stretches towards the end zone as he scores against the New Orleans Saints during the Dec. 22 game in Charlotte. The Panthers won 17-13.

BOB LEVERONE — AP

The 2014 NFL salary cap for each team is expected to be $126.3 million.

Combining the salary-cap hits for running backs Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, the trio will make up more than $14.8 million of the entire cap.

So nearly 12 percent of the Panthers’ entire salary cap will be tied up in the Carolina backfield entering the 2014 season.

But Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman said Tuesday the production of the Panthers’ run game, which has gone down from the late 2000s when it became the best in the league, has been enough to warrant the cap space.

“I’m comfortable. It is what it is,” Gettleman said. “This is the way we’re built. We believe in the running game. There’s an old saying: ‘You can never have too many running backs.’ We’re fine.”

Gettleman mentioned the team was “cap-challenged” five times in the 35-minute news conference, but he did not prescribe the phrase to the Panthers’ backfield.

Although the Panthers will roll over $12 million in cap space into the 2014 season, the team will have decisions to make regarding possible extensions for quarterback Cam Newton and defensive end Greg Hardy, as well as potentially re-signing left tackle Jordan Gross, whose contract voids in February.

Stewart, Williams and Tolbert earned more than $9 million in 2013 while posting 1,384 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns among them. Stewart, who rushed for 180 yards, sandwiched six games between recovering from offseason ankle surgery and a sprained MCL (medial collateral ligament) suffered in Week 14 against the Saints.

His five-year, $36.5 million contract extension signed before the 2012 season is the largest of the trio. His base salary for 2014 is fully guaranteed, and that includes $22.5 million that’s guaranteed in his contract.

Since signing the extension, Stewart has played in 15 games, and he hasn’t rushed for more than 51 yards in a game.

Despite his multiple injuries and lack of production, Stewart likely will remain with the Panthers in 2014. Because of his accelerated bonus money, it would cost the Panthers more to cut him before next season than to keep him.

Tolbert has the lightest contract of the three, and he’s set to earn $3.35 million next year after a Pro Bowl season in 2013.

He rushed for 183 yards in 2012 under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, but in 2013 he was used more. Tolbert carried 101 times for 361 yards and totaled seven touchdowns rushing and receiving en route to his first Pro Bowl.

Tolbert said he “absolutely” anticipates the running back group returning intact next year, including Kenjon Barner and undrafted running back Mike Zordich.

“I don’t have any control on what goes on upstairs,” Tolbert said Monday, “but I fully think that myself and Jonathan and DeAngelo and KB and Mike, we’ll all be here together running hell.”

Williams has been the most consistent running back for the Panthers in recent years, though he still hasn’t reached the 1,000-yard plateau he hit in 2008 and 2009.

Williams, who was one of seven veterans who restructured his contract last offseason, led the team in rushing this season with 843 yards while hauling in 333 receiving yards. But his 4.2 yards per carry was his lowest average since an injury-shortened 2010 season.

Tolbert said he understands the business side of sports, but he also believes 2014 will be the year the Panthers’ backfield proves its worth.

“I understand that there are things you can’t control as a player,” Tolbert said. “But at the same time I understand that we, as a running back group, have something special in this backfield. And to keep it going, we have to keep everyone on board.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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