The final positional review comes for RB - possibly as talented as any
other position, certainly as deep, and yet in a period of limbo.
Carolina and it's ball control, time of possession attack on offense
relies fairly heavily on the backs - 7th in attempts compared to 30th in
passes. While some of that comes from having a running quarterback
(22% of the team's attempts, whether called or not; 28% of its yards),
you can't base your running game on a quarterback.
It's been the Deangelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart show since 2008, with
the only break in that being for injury. That seems likely to continue
past this year - its seventh year in a row, Williams' contract voids
after '15 and Stewart is cuttable around that point. Regarding that
bit about injury, Stewart had his worst year, playing in six games and
recording one start. Started the year on PUP and was activated, only
get hurt after a few more games.
That left Williams carrying a lot of load, and the load-bearing fullback
Mike Tolbert being relief in both rushes and comedy. So far, Stewart
seems to be ready, and for Carolina to return to an elite level rushing
attack (3rd in yards, 2011; 9th in 2012; 11th in '13), it needs him to
be out there. For Williams to make the occasional homerun, he can't
take on quite as many of the hard carries; you could argue Tolbert would
be fresher as well, as he doesn't really do well with more than 12
touches a game.
As well, the team has thrown picks at young players at RB, hoping to
pave a little way for the future.
To start with the fullbacks, Tolbert is all you could ask for. A solid
blocker, a very good outlet receiver; a Pro Bowler. He runs possibly
with more power than anyone on the roster, and the .gifs of him running
over the average Falcon or Buc aren't any less entertaining than his TD
dances. He's a goal line specialist, which shows in his RB-high 5 TDs
last year (2nd in rushing to Newton's 6). His 3.6 yards per attempt?
Excusable when you see where his carries are. He's a flying brick and
if I could field a quartet of 5'9, 260 lb RBs that were clones of
Tolbert's, I'd run the ball 45 times. Tolbert finished with 361 rush
yards and 184 in the passing game.
Behind him, you get part-time FB/TE Richie Brockel - a solid blocker who
never really gets the ball (1 carry, 1 yard/1 rec 12 yards, and a
fumble) but is a TE who can simply play the position a bit; you have a
more pure FB in Michael Zordich, an undrafted from Penn State (and son
of the DB by the same name - Cards/Jets/Eagles). He has a good thump to
him, and played a little LB in college as well. That's everything the
team is throwing at FB.
At RB - you have Williams, entering his ninth year (that alone might
make you feel a little older yourself). It looked like his career was
nose-diving in 2012 - Jonathan Stewart was signed and named starter,
improbably, and immediately started his journey of getting hurt, the
only thing that really saved Williams (along with a heavy deal). A late
2012 burst against the legendarily bad Saints defense re-cemented his
place, and he's done allright with it. Without his steady 2013 (843
yards, 201 carries; that's 4.2 per; 3 TDs, including a game-winner of 43
yards against San Francisco), Carolina doesn't have its year. Tolbert
can only carry so much load, as can Newton. Like the other backs,
Williams only really gets used as a passing threat with a screen - often
on packaged plays. His 26 rec for 333 and one score gives him a total
of 4 TDs and 1176 yards from scrimmage, not bad for a 30 year old RB.
But, again, you have to have Tolbert and Stewart, minimim, for this to
keep up. 31 isn't kind to a RB. He's now absorbed 1370 carries, which
could've been even worse; he averages 12.3 per game, which most backs of
his stature may have absorbed 20-24, obviously double that. As well,
even a complimentary back would have a lot more than 1.6 receptions a
game career (more on that later). Williams has two years on his
contract before voiding, and who knows if he'll last through two more
200 carry seasons? That's not a huge amount of carries, but it's a good
bit at 30 years old.
Stewart? Who knows. He has to be healthy. The time off has to have
done him good, and there's nothing you can say about him getting cut at
the sideline to get re-hurt. No way around it. It's just bad luck.
He's another player that has two years (he'll be 29 after 2015's
finished, and still low miles, but so expensive), and somewhere in
there, they'll have to lean on him a bit more. He's been a good player,
but since being signed, he's given the team almost nothing. He's a
tremendously talented player that you can't help but root for, but to
take things to the next level, he has to be involved.
Then there's the youth.
Kenjon Barner turned out not to be Darren Sproles. As a rookie, turned
out, he was just a spread-offense guy who was small, fumbled a bit in
preseason, and then got hurt. His few carries as a pro in real
competition were a mess, going down on first contact and running
upright. I was losing hope in Barner. I recently read an article on
http://www.si.com/nfl/2014/07/15/carolina-panthers-kenjon-barner-training ) that provided some insight to his work, and hopefully that helps. Might just be fluff, and God only knows I've caught enough about "Player X was working to overcome injury/adversity/gained weight/lost weight/trained like this" in the offseason to give false hope. But getting bigger, and training like a pro, is a good thing to hear out of a 2nd year.
Barner's not as shifty as Sproles, and the truth is, while he can be
good in space, outside the screen game he's not a player that's good
from scrimmage yet. Carolina doesn't ask any back to split wide much,
where Barner might be as useful; he certainly doesn't get the space to
work in that Sproles does. This just isn't that offense. Ted Ginn's
departure as a KR and PR means Barner has some room to spread into a
return job, but he's not really going to help you out with the rest of
special teams, and that's a lot to ask of a 4th RB (if you count
And that's where Tyler Gaffney comes in. A gym rat, film rat, do
everything back, Gaffney's this year's new late-round back, possibly a
bargain since he left for a year to play baseball (otherwise, a guy with
junior experience in a pro style system and 1700 yards/21 TD would be
higher in the draft. A more solid 5'11, 227, Gaffney's just athletic
enough, but won't have the growing pains Barner did. He trains like a
pro, has already been in this system, and can run between the tackles.
The team singled him out for his pass blocking, suggesting it will make
things a lot easier in preseason. So, he can do a lot Barner hasn't
shown he can do.
The team could use both (Barner would be a good home run type backup to
Gaffney's possibly uninspiring but workmanlike rushing) and will
probably make room for all. But the back two, in the regular season,
won't get much play this year. In an ideal world, DW gets 13 carries,
Stewart 10, Tolbert a total of 10 touches, and Barner returns balls on
special teams while Gaffney runs them down. That's how Zordich
probably doesn't sniff this roster, and that might give a little life to
the backup FB and TE Brockel (if the numbers game doesn't also get him).
I know that Carolina's close to the vest ideals mean quick passes and
being very QB-friendly. But related to that, the backs carry almost no
weight in the passing game, a very significant portion in screens. Per
profootballfocus.com, Newton had 5th highest percentage of screens at 6%
of attempts; and yet non-screen situations, RBs were targeted only 9.7%,
4th lowest. A lot of that's in packaged plays; maybe some of that's
missing Stewart, so the carries had to be the priority.
if Stewart is healthy, maybe he gets more passes (history says no, 1.4
rec/game, only boosted by 2011's 47 receptions). Or Tolbert, playing a
more ancillary role, gets more passes as an outlet. I know the offense
can sustain it, as the mid-90s saw FB Larry Centers catch 100 passes in
a season. I don't want Carolina to be quite as easy to read, but it can
use the backs more. They do carry a load already, but there's room for
them to get you 6 yards on 2nd down (Newton's worst down) just as easily
as they can get you 4.2 rushing on first.
There's no doubt they have enough to carry a load. They depth and
redundancy. It's coming at a high cost, so they have to pull that
weight yet again.