NFL Free Agency Rumors: Mike Tolbert to the Panthers Will Force out Another RB

Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2012

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 05:  Running back Mike Tolbert #35 of the San Diego Chargers reacts after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 5, 2011 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Mike Tolbert is reportedly visiting the Carolina Panthers this weekend, according to the Charlotte Observer.

It became clear that the former San Diego Chargers running/full-back wasn't going to return to San Diego once the team signed LeRon McClain from the Kansas City Chiefs to fill his role. The contenders for Tolbert's signature appear to be the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers.

Both teams make a lot of sense for Tolbert as far as fitting within their respective schemes and offensive identities, but one team actually has a desperate need for Tolbert while the other would need to create space for him.

Prior to the beginning of training camp last season, the Panthers re-signed DeAngelo Williams to a huge deal. Williams went on to have a great year in the Panthers offense, even if it doesn't fully represent itself on the statistic sheet.

It was somewhat of a surprise that Williams received such a big deal from the Panthers at the time because of the other backs on the roster. Jonathan Stewart, who was a former first-round pick in 2008, was still with the team while Mike Goodson had had a breakout year in 2010.

Stewart's biggest issues have always been staying healthy, as he missed two games in 2010 and has less than 200 carries for three out of his four NFL seasons. However, he is still only 24 years old, so it was some surprise that the Panthers weren't trying to move forward with him last season and spend the money they gave Williams on other areas of the team.

Because they couldn't rely on Stewart to carry the load, it was expected that Mike Goodson would replace Williams as the Panthers tried to give their rookie quarterback a strong rushing attack to rely on.

Of course, absolutely none of that happened and Newton showed us all that he wasn't a typical rookie who needed to be protected by a rushing attack.

What was pivotal for the DeAngelo Williams' signing, was the type of offense Carolina was looking to run. Many expected them to be cautious with their young quarterback early on, but the Panthers dived head first into an offense designed around his talents.

As such, Mike Goodson became a redundant piece in Carolina.

Instead of using Goodson, the Panthers needed the threat of Williams and Stewart in the backfield with Newton. Newton rushed 126 times last year—only 16 fewer times than Stewart—for over 700 yards and an unbelievable 14 touchdowns.

Essentially, Newton replaced Goodson as the third part of the three-headed monster running the Panthers' backfield.

With Newton as your quarterback, it doesn't make sense to invest in three running backs who are too good to be inactive. Therefore, if the Panthers do sign Tolbert, you can expect one of the other two running backs to hit the trading block.

Of the two, the most likely to become available is definitely Stewart. While he actually had 18 more touches than Williams last season, Williams received more carries making him the primary runner.

Stewart also only has one year left on his deal, so it makes more sense for the Panthers to trade him. There would also likely be a bigger market for him as he is still only 24 years of age after playing four seasons in the league.

He has proven himself as an excellent runner while exploding as a third down back last season with 47 receptions. He is currently manning the role in Rob Chudzinski's offense that Mike Tolbert would fill.

Chudzinski and head coach Ron Rivera know Tolbert from their days in San Diego. With the Chargers, Tolbert proved himself as an excellent back alongside Ryan Mathews. Tolbert's ability to play multiple positions and act as multiple types of backs (goal-line back, third down back, feature back) make him a perfect fit for the Chargers.

Tolbert's 54 receptions for over 400 yards last season is a huge reason why the Panthers would want him. His dynamism as a blocker would also potentially make him more valuable for to the Panthers than Stewart.


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