Ever since Jonathan Stewart entered the NFL in 2008 and partnered up with franchise great DeAngelo Williams, the Panther’s backfield has been primarily a two back system. The tandem went on to reach heights never before seen among NFL record books in 2009, and officially earned the “Double Trouble” title. The pair’s great play led to lucrative contracts, part of which has cash strapped the salary cap to this very date. This past offseason saw the departure of DeAngelo Williams, and the bell cow label put on Stewart. We also welcomed a new bruiser in the form of Auburn star, Cameron Artis-Payne. It would seem the Panther’s finally have a new group of backs, a group that should provide stability and familiarity for years to come. Or maybe not.
Jonathan Stewart’s contract runs out in 2017, and as David Newton has pointed out, Dave Gettleman isn’t adverse to cutting a player before he’s completely off the books. Could this be Stewart’s last year in a Panther’s uniform, the NFL is an unforgiving league after all. Would the Panther’s decide to cut bait with J Stew and his 9+ million cap hit in 2016 if he happens to play poorly or gets injured again? These questions swirling around Stewart could quite possibly come true, and the Panther’s would be without an identity at running back for the first time, in a long time.
This leads us to look at the future; because even if we keep J Stew until his contract runs out, that would only be a few seasons away, and I highly doubt we resign a 30 year old back with an injury history. As of right now, this would leave Artis-Payne as the only heir apparent to the starting role at running back. Even though I am a fan of “CAP” I’m just not sure if he can be an every down back when his name is called. Instead, I see him as a 10 carry-a-game rotational back. This in part will force the Panthers to either bring a good back in via free agency when Stewart is outed, or to draft a running back high up within the next few seasons, and have him form a new tandem with Artis-Payne (the latter the more likely scenario).
The 2016 draft looks to be loaded with backfield talent and barring something significant, Carolina’s roster might be solid enough to take a luxury pick on a back within the first 2-3 rounds. Whether it be playoff dominating Ezekiel Elliott, Alabama star Derrick Henry, or a personal favorite of mine Shock Linwood; the Panthers could find themselves looking to draft a running back in the first round for the first time since 2008. It is time for J Stew to step up and leave it all on the field this season, his place in the Panther’s locker room may very well depend on it.
The interior of the offensive line is looking pretty good at the moment with two second year guards looking to improve off their steady rookie season. Though the offensive line isn’t to the strength of play to where it can mask a running back’s flaws, it should be good enough to not bring out his weaknesses. The Panther’s running game looks like it is in a position to dominate for years to come, and whether familiar faces will be the ones racking up the yardage has yet to be seen.
By Grant Hughes
Follow Grant on Twitter @KenjonVander