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Ask Bryan: Running men

Posted Mar 8, 2016

Will last year's rookie running backs take on bigger role in 2016 or will Jonathan Stewart continue to tote the load? And what about Mike Tolbert's future?

Do we see the young running backs taking a major step for the Panthers as Stewart is getting up there in age? – Robert in Stanley, N.C.

First off, I wouldn't write off Jonathan Stewart. There's a school of thought that NFL running backs begin heading downhill when they reach the age of 30 and/or the 2,000-carry mark. But it's far from a universal truth, and Stewart isn't there yet, anyway. He turns 29 on March 21, so he'll play just one more season in his twenties, but he's nowhere near 2,000 carries. He's been in the league for eight years, but in large part because of being in a timeshare with DeAngelo Williams for seven seasons, he has just 1,283 carries.

The Panthers weren't shy about testing Stewart's reliability last season and were richly rewarded, but when he did suffer a foot injury late in the year that the Panthers played it safe with in anticipation of the playoffs, one of the young backs got his chance. Rookie Cameron Artis-Payne, a fifth-round draft pick, amassed 210 yards of total offense over the three games without Stewart. He rushed for 152 yards – averaging 4.6 yards per carry – and added five receptions for 58 yards.

The other young back you're no doubt thinking of is Brandon Wegher, an undrafted rookie who lit it up in the preseason but didn't have a carry and played in just one game come the regular season. Wegher and Artis-Payne combined for a jaw-dropping 4,218 yards and 52 touchdowns on the ground their final season in college, and there is reason to have high hopes that they'll be major contributors going forward. But specific to next season, I'd expect more of the same from Stewart with probably a little more opportunity for the second-year backs.

What are the Panthers' plans with Mike Tolbert? – Molly in Rutherfordton, N.C.

Artis-Payne took a back seat to Tolbert in the regular season finale, when the bruiser powered his way to a season-high 59 yards on just 10 carries. His touchdown totals have been down the last two years - four total vs. 14 the previous two seasons - but he remains invaluable as a blocking fullback and is a favorite in the locker room.

As of this writing, Tolbert is set to become an unrestricted free agent in less than 24 hours. But the Panthers have signed several guys at the 11th hour over the years, and of course it's an option to sign Tolbert after he becomes an unrestricted free agent as well.

Again, subject to change, here are the Panthers set to become free agents Wednesday at 4 p.m. when the new league year begins:

UNRESTRICTED RESTRICTED
POS PLAYER POS PLAYER
WR Jerricho Cotchery
DE Frank Alexander
CB Cortland Finnegan

OT Tyronne Green

S Roman Harper
   
DT Kyle Love
   
P Brad Nortman
   
G Amini Silatolu
   
CB Charles Tillman
   
FB Mike Tolbert
   
C Fernando Velasco
   
QB Joe Webb
 

 


What are the chances the Panthers pick a corner to play opposite Josh Norman? Is there a good chance of getting Eli Apple in the first round? – Christopher in Whiteville, N.C.

I think the Panthers have their cornerback opposite Norman in Bene Benwikere, who has played well through his first two seasons when asked to play outside but who played inside last season after Carolina signed veteran Charles Tillman, now a pending free agent. The bigger question might be who will take over the nickel role with Benwikere set to move outside and Cortland Finnegan set to become a free agent.

Cornerback is a position the Panthers will consider in the NFL Draft. In the case of Apple, an Ohio State standout, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com advocates your call for Carolina to draft him. However, four of the five analysts in our first Mock Draft Report believe Apple will have already been selected when Carolina picks at No. 30. Far from scientific but interesting nonetheless.

Panthers.com senior writer Bryan Strickland answers your questions. Fill out the form below to send it to him. The answer to your question could be posted on Panthers.com.
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