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Ask Bryan: Fullback forecast

Posted Feb 23, 2017

What's the plan at fullback following Mike Tolbert's release? What will the running back room as a whole look like in 2017?

Since the Panthers have released fullback Mike Tolbert, do you think their answer for the position is already on the roster, or could a free agent be a consideration? – Jason in Mill Spring, N.C.

First, a few words about Tolbert. He was a favorite in the locker room and among many fans, and he did the dirty work with success for a long time. His effectiveness and his role diminished some this past season, however, as frankly has the role of the fullback around the league. That's evidenced by Tolbert - despite career lows in rushing and receiving yards per game as well as receptions - being named to the Pro Bowl (and by the decision this past season to no longer include fullback as a position on the All-Pro team).

Head coach Ron Rivera has talked about the offense getting back to a more traditional run game next season, and it's a safe assumption that the fullback position will play a notable role in that. Devon Johnson is an interesting option as Marshall's career leader with 7.8 yards per rushing attempt, but he could face an uphill battle after spending his rookie season on injured reserve with a back injury. The name that intrigues me is Darrel Young. Signed two days after the regular season, Young was out of football in 2016, so he's surely hungry to prove he's still the player that showed a nose for the end zone and a knack for making impact plays in the passing game during his six seasons in Washington.

Which would be a better fit for our offense to strengthen our backfield, and running game, back to where it was along with Jonathan Stewart: Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook? – James in Wytheville, N.C.

General manager Dave Gettleman often talks about how the way players fit into the Panthers' scheme impacts where they fit on the Panthers' draft board. Given that we're not entirely sure how running backs will be used in 2017, fit is even harder to forecast. At the same time, with players as talented as those three, they more or less fit in any system.

Of the three, Fournette is the more prototypical power back seemingly suited for a traditional running game, and he's the most physically capable of being an effective blocker in the passing game. On the other hand, Rivera has also made it sound like the new-look offense will feature more short, quick-hitting looks in the passing game, and that's an area where both Cook and McCaffrey could truly shine.

The flow of the draft, of course, could well dictate than none of the three become Panthers. Fournette could be gone by the time the Panthers pick No. 8 overall, and McCaffrey could be gone by the time the Panthers pick in the second round.

But don't forget with all the draft hype that Stewart remains a bruiser of a back and a proven pass protector who was a successful safety valve during Cam Newton's productive rookie campaign (47 catches that season; 73 total the five seasons since). Stewart should be a big part of the next chapter regardless of what happens to the position group between now and the season opener.

You mentioned you needed a question from Jacksonville...so here you go. What do you think about the free agent possibilities surrounding a few players who have roots in the Carolinas – college products like Julius Peppers and Mario Williams and former Panthers like Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn? - Clayton in Jacksonville, N.C.

Peppers, now 15 years into a stellar career, has now spent nearly half of it playing elsewhere. This past season, despite not starting every game for the first time since leaving the Panthers following the 2009 season, he still managed to post his 14th season with seven or more sacks (7.5). After spending the last three years with the Packers, he's set to become an unrestricted free agent.

Munnerlyn, too, is set to become a free agent after three seasons as the Vikings' nickel corner. His 12 passes defensed and two interception touchdown returns made him a hot commodity after the 2013 season and ended his five-year run with the Panthers, but Carolina could be in the market for some help at nickel.

Peppers grew up in North Carolina and attended the university of, while Munnerlyn played at South Carolina, but that's only a part of the reason they were fan favorites. It would be fun to see one if not both back in a Panthers uniform.

And yes, thanks for the question from Jacksonville, which now joins Denver and Dallas as "NFL towns" in North Carolina featured in Ask Bryan. Washington, Cleveland and Minneapolis (still can't believe there's a Minneapolis in North Carolina) - you're next.