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Friday, March 30, 2012

Stewart Trade Still Smart

Stewart Trade Still Smart

It won’t happen, but Jonathan Stewart is a guy I’d still trade.

It hurts to say, honestly. Stewart has been a fantastic back for Carolina in four years, proving as able and surprisingly more healthy than Deangelo Williams. Given the chance, he could easily best 1600 yards (and probably would have no problem pitching in 500+ receiving yards). He’ll never do that here, which is fine, because it’s not about personal accomplishment here.

But, from a business standpoint, Stewart should go.

With a year left on his rookie deal, he’s ready to be paid well, and who knows – Carolina may do that. They have a history of it. It’s something they apparently intend to do – even suggesting that adding Mike Tolbert as a future contingency plan if Stewart goes. Stewart could demand more than Williams – and Carolina could pay, giving what could be 1/6 of their cap to just two players. Two players that aren’t doing different things. Franchising him for a year or two would net fewer longterm issues, with no security. But at a very unfortunate cap number in those two years.

The other option, of course, is that Carolina lets Stewart walk and they receive nothing. Which is why a trade now should be lucrative, a shift of talent from being RB heavy to being able to afford other things, too. It might give Carolina the ability to go get two defenders in the top 50, without missing out on another offensive playmaker. It might give the team the ability to load up on three defenders in the same space.

The trade of Mike Goodson to Oakland essentially seals in our RBs for 2012 – Stewart and Williams at running back, Tolbert at fullback. Stewart remains, and the team is better for it now- but longterm, the cost seems greater with him than without.

Tolbert To Do Heavy Lifting

Newly signed RB Mike Tolbert buys into what’s going on in Carolina.

Apparently, he’s willing to take less money than the Chargers offered to stay (in one of the most beautiful markets in the league), to move to fullback and play special teams, two of the grittiest, thankless jobs out there.

Ron Rivera reiterated that Tolbert was a guy they saw as a fullback, citing him as “athletic ... playmaking.” This, along with the Mike Goodson trade, suggests no Jonathan Stewart trade.

Now, suggesting fullback isn’t to say that Tolbert would spend all of his time flinging himself at a defender. It’s an important piece of the puzzle, one that was missing last year, but not the only part in Carolina. The Coryell offense has regularly given the fullback balls (note Larry Senters, FB for Arizona in the 90s, who caught 100 balls as a fullback). Tolbert himself caught 50 balls last year as a backup RB. There’s room for split-back sets that could give Tolbert the ball, and certainly short yardage he makes sense as well. Of course, were anything to happen where Carolina did need Tolbert at RB, that’s always an option. Consider him a more talented, more dynamic Nick Goings, who thrived in a throttled-down version of this offense with Dan Henning.

Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is a master at formations, shifts, and motions, and that could mean that Tolbert can move around – a lot. He’s not so athletic that he poses a bigtime threat on the edge as a receiver the way a Deangelo Williams or Greg Olson could, but it still does draw attention. Defenses would still, as typical, move the CB out if Tolbert motioned outside the WR, hopefully leaving a mismatch somewhere else. Moving Tolbert around within formation, or out-and-back (in our terminology, F Orbit), can tell the adjustment (which can tip off the defense). And having a more

It’s a departure from most of the league, where the fullback has fallen out of favor. Carolina, who used Olson and Jeremy Shockey together for the majority of snaps that didn’t include at least 3 WR, often used Olson moving around, and lining up at fullback a good deal, but it was window dressing. They may still do that at times on 2 TE sets – the other TE is up for grabs at this point (Ben Hartsock is the more likely blocker, younger Gary Barnidge would likely have the job if he can block lower or show more consistency as he had in preseason 2011), so it’s less likely the team does use 2 TE at this point. The move is a departure for Chudzinski, who spent time in 2011 acquiring three new TEs, and added Randy McMichael and to Antonio Gates in 2010. Both teams used more 2 TE than almost anyone in the league in that timespan. Of course, using Olsen by himself would increase his productivity, and might let him go deeper more often, combining him with a WR route instead of pairing him more with the other TE as was the case often last year.

Now that does leave Richie Brockel on the ledge, so to speak. Another former Charger, Brockel scored on possibly the coolest play of the 2011 season, on a goal-line trick play that included a stealthy snap without linemen moving, a fake triple-option that had both Steve Smith and Deangelo Williams as possible pitch men, and ended with Brockel the unlikely hero scoring untouched. Brockel has some blocking ability, and toughness – and special teams ability. But Tolbert recreates all of that, at a higher level, and better hands (and RB skill when needed).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

OL?

No word out of the Jason Brown camp, where Carolina had the interior lineman into the team facilities last week but haven't heard from him on the next step. Other teams were interested, but not much has been said about that, either.

Carolina does need another veteran guard. They cut Travelle Wharton, their longterm LG, and didn't tender RG Geoff Schwartz; Mackenzy Bernadeau left for Dallas. They did retain veteran Geoff Hangartner, who ended up playing all of last year at RG, and they have Byron Bell from RT if they find better options at tackle (Bell was inconsistent, when not just outright bad).

They could put Hangartner at one spot, ideally LG despite his play at RG; that spot would possibly make the most sense with a draftee. With Duke Robinson, Bernadeau, and Schwartz not around, the team has moved on from all of its young guard candidates, unless you move some tackles inside.

Those tackles don't really fit well at guard, however, and the team would still need a starter on the other side. They may be waiting for Brown to decide, or to take whatever money Carolina has chosen to offer (keeping with many of the moves so far, it won't be a lot of money). There seems to be a real sense that the team wants one more vet, however, and that's a smart idea.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Stewart Trade Rumors Die Down

I have to admit, while I like the Pat Yasinskas ideal that the Panthers are using Mike Tolbert, picked up today, primarily as a fullback, I do think back longingly at the idea of getting great value out of Jonathan Stewart.

Stewart's a better back than anyone currently a free agent, and at a low deal this year ($3 million). He has low miles, and honestly, he might be more talented than Deangelo Williams if he can get more carries.

It's down to where I don't want him to go, but the appeal of having another top 40 pick for our defense is more palatable than spending another $50 million on another back.

Tolbert isn't Stewart, and in an ideal world you'd have all of these backs, but it isn't - and I don't want tons of money into a trio of RBs if it means being talent poor on defense. In a year, will it be more important to have that $50 million into an immensely talented RB with another one already there, or into a playmaker on defense? That's Jon Beason money.

It's a delicate balance. Stewart is a main force on this team. He'll probably stay, and I'll be happy the team got what it wanted, but it'll be tough to stay competitive with two star RB, a star QB who runs a good deal, and a lot of roleplayers.

Mike Tolbert Signed

Carolina made yet another special teams move picking up versatile running back Mike Tolbert.

Grabbing him from the San Diego Chargers, the move is a shrewd, inexpensive (4 years, $10 million) deal with many facets:
*naturally, as a Charger, Tolbert is well known in this offense already
*from this offense, he's been a versatile player as a RB or FB - and even when not getting a lot of time in 2011, caught over 50 balls out of the backfield
*playing either FB or RB, he makes for a great guy to put in motion, or a guy who can stay in the backfield as a running threat (700+ yards in 2010 rushing), either of which are big draws in this offense
*Carolina had a hole at FB, clearly, with Tony Fiammetta being cut and Richie Brockel really being more of a TE;
*With a fullback that can block or catch, the need is less for a 2nd TE that can do so - enough that Ben Hartsock can remain situational as a blocker, and Gary Barnidge is enough as a 2nd TE. So, Jeremy Shockey isn't required - as much as it'd be great to have two top TE, spreading the upgrades around is a good way to go.

*since Carolina does run the triple option, it means flexibility - you can use both Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams if you want, or you don't have to. It's no longer a tell that the option is a possibility if both players aren't on the field.
*The 4 year deal has an option allowing the team to buy in, "if Stewart doesn't stay", but I think people are making too much of that. Charles Godfrey has that bonus. Jon Beason has that bonus. That's how contracts work now.

Most importantly:
Tolbert is an ace special teamer. So you're getting a Nick Goings level of versatility in a massive body that can do everything well including block, play special teams. If this deal doesn't work out, he's an expensive special teamer, but given the way that this has played out so far, the success rate seems high.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Jason Baker Cut

The team dropped punter Jason Baker, suggested months ago as a likely cap casualty here, was released.

Baker, a Panther since 2005 making him one of the longest tenured players until being let go, was part of one of the more successful trades in team history - dropping problematic punter Todd Sauerbrun for Baker and a 7th round pick (which became wasted potential DE Stanley McClover). To have dumped an attitude liability for Baker was a coup - until last year, when Baker's punting really started to decline for the first time.

Until then, Baker always had top 15 averages, at times top 5; he excelled in pinning the ball inside the 20.


Still plenty of room, and time, to go grab a new punter, of course. From my view, with Steve Weatherford off the table via franchise tag, it looks like Dave Zastudil or Daniel Sepulveda might be the best bets.

Special Teams Moves

Looks like Carolina has moved from line play to special teams.

Haruki Nakamura, safety for the Baltimore Ravens, signed a 3 year, $4.8 million deal, equally divided ($1.3 and $1.8 million base salaries in future years, $700,000 now and $1 million to sign) throughout the deal. Nakamura is an ace special teamer, who was having trouble getting playing time with the stacked Ravens. Granted, the Ravens are letting Tom Zbikowski go and weren't interested in promoting Nakamura, but the emphasis is nonetheless with Carolina to get him more time and to get Sherrod Martin a push (no reason to push Charles Godfrey, he's been paid too well to play as he is, but there's no turning back).

At the worst, Nakamura really steps up special teams coverage. He's probably not the starting level guy that you might want to see fighting for the job, but he's a guy who'll add toughness, will hit, will tackle, wrap up, and make it to his responsibility or die trying. He's going to add that attribute that's been missing in the secondary lately as well - a little attitude - which can't hurt either.

To that end, the team also signed LB Kenny Onatolu, a 6'2, 225 lb former Viking - Onatolu was picked up by current Panthers ST coach Brian Murphy in 09 from the CFL. Onatolu started out as a wedge buster, which in theory is no longer an ideal since they got rid of the wedge (teams like the Pats still seem to wedge, but it's not called and it's still usually only three men), but he's still an adept special teams player who excels at shedding blocks on coverage teams. It'll be give or take on whether or not he can play much linebacker, but it'll be nice just to have that special teams mercenary feel to a pickup.


Still time for more pickups, and they're certainly not done with special teams even if they make rumored specialist changes.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Davis cuts salary, Hangartner signed...others walk

Thomas Davis took a big-time paycut to make Carolina $3.8 million. It's a calculated risk, one with low upside. Thanks, Thomas, and good luck. This one somewhat erased some of the issues with the contract Marty Hurney put in front of him and he took, eagerly.

Travelle Wharton unfortunately gets cut - to the amazement of some Panther players, suggesting a deal was possibly in place to stay at one point - but is possibly for the best as Wharton gave up too much inside pressure. Including the (poorly made) move to let Geoff Schwartz walk, and Carolina leaves without their intended 2011 starters at guard.

They chose to keep Geoff Hangartner, a three year deal worth around $2 mil a year. Hangartner did play somewhat well last year at guard, and for that money he's a fringe starter or expensive depth.

To keep the run on linemen afloat, they brought in G/C Jason Brown. Brown, a UNC alum, was a third round pick with the Ravens followed by being the league's highest paid center in 2009 with the Rams. That last bit hurt him a good deal, proving unworthy of the money.

Baker, a 6'4, 320 lb lineman, is massive for a center. He struggled with the Rams to provide consistency. He did have a very good year under current Panthers OL coach John Matsko in their one year together, in 2008.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Saints: Twilight?

If you're a Carolina follower, you know how much it stung to have a good finish to the season marred by such a blowout against New Orleans: after playing them close earlier in the season, they tied 17 before the Saints mercilessly scored 28 unanswered points and went on to set numerous offensive records.

That should stick in the front office's mind as well, looking to revitalize a defense that hasn't been good since 2009, which itself wasn't dominant. Coach Ron Rivera has pledged to work more with Sean McDermott's defense, something many feared he'd have done too much with (and certainly didn't, hopefully - meaning the room to grow is legitimate).

It looked like the Saints were doing a decent job of remaining competitive, switching out defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for a counterpart of McDermott and Rivera's, Steve Spagnuolo, which is an upgrade. It also looked like they'd have a good chance at keeping their team together.

But, the Saints appear to be doing a decent job of dismantling themselves suddenly. A franchise tag on Drew Brees means they might not be able to come to an agreement on a deal - tying up more cap space in the meantime - and that may mean that guard Carl Nicks, WRs Marques Colston, Robert Meacham, and a number of defensive linemen will have a better shot at reaching free agency.

But the most interesting bit is the story on bounties, brought in by Williams and apparently funneled through Sean Payton and at least one outside benefactor. The penalties are likely to be severe (potential suspensions, likely picks forfeited, and who knows what else), but are undetermined as of yet.

The end result is that no matter what happens, if the Saints have Brees, they'll be powerful. But, take away the inside presence of Nicks, remove the big bodies of Colston/Meacham to leave just speed guys on the outside, and neuter Payton's ability to get Spagnuolo the specialized players he'll require? They don't stand the chance of being top contenders anymore.