Not too long ago, I wrote that the Panthers would have the best backfield in football this season. With or without this extension, this would have remained true, but this extension means that the Panthers not only have the best group of backs (as well as arguably the best running QB in football) on their team, but that they will be in place for the foreseeable future.
Prior to the extension, Jonathan Stewart was considered one of the top free agents heading into next season, and he's been the subject of a lot of trade possibilities, especially after the arrival of Mike Tolbert to Carolina, and the effectiveness of Tauren Poole so far as a Panther.
Having DeAngelo Williams signed up virtually through the rest of his career, Stewart signed through most of his prime, and having two other backs who could adequately produce, as well as a QB who can run and throw at an equally high level of execution... is anyone still holding out that this isn't the best running attack in football?
Sure, the Panthers are paying starting back money for two separate backs. Just last year, the Panthers solidified their confidence in DeAngelo Williams by signing him to a five-year, $43 million deal, essentially locking Williams up for the rest of his career as a Panther. He became one of the highest paid backs in the NFL, despite sharing carries with both Stewart and QB Cam Newton.
It seemed like a longshot to sign J-Stew to a long-term contract, but for the Panthers it was a necessity. The success of the other backs around him is tied to the skill on Jonathan Stewart.
DeAngelo Williams is about to become only the second running back in the history of the NFL to average five or more yards per attempt on the ground with 1,000 or more carries.
That's insane—and elite.
Williams has unbelievable speed, and letting him get a glimpse of any open field is the last thing opposing teams want to happen. The second he sees some open room, his agility and unbelievable burst of speed allow him to create high-yardage carries frequently. He's the definition of a small, undersized running back fueled by speed.
Stewart, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. While he has good speed, he doesn't blow runners away like Williams. Instead, he just runs them over. He breaks tackles like no one else in the NFL, and according to a study on elusiveness of running backs in the NFL, Stewart was ranked as the most elusive back in football.
Stewart is a hard-working, dedicated young man who wanted to be a Panther. He very easily could have ridden this season out and got this much money or more to be a primary back in pretty much any other system. Instead, he's content sharing carries with Williams, Tolbert, Newton, and possibly even Poole.
The Panthers owed Stewart this money and this extension, and further, it gives them insurance in case of an injury. Williams is 29, and while he still has a few good years left in his legs, God forbid he becomes injured and the team have no true primary back to cover him. Same goes for Stewart leaning on Williams...both need each other for security.
The connection between Williams and Stewart moving forward is going to be key to the Panthers' success. Defensive units will dread having to worry about who's going to get the ball every possession, and it's going to drive coordinators nuts trying to figure out what play to call. And when you add in the cogs of Cam Newton's running and throwing ability, and Mike Tolbert's ability to power through the middle, I don't think anyone is going to know what to do.
Might as well be a wing-T offense. Not really, though—that would be really bad. Maybe.
Regardless, this is money well spent. It could have gone elsewhere, but with a team that has greatly improved during the draft, and having several key players returning from injuries, the Panthers don't have many glaring holes that need to be filled right now that can't be covered in the draft.
And now they have the best four-headed (possibly even five-headed) running monster in the NFL. By a lot—by a whole, whole lot.
Teams will know this, and they'll start slacking off on the pass D, and then Cam is going to light them up for 5,000 yards.
Maybe a big of an exaggeration (or maybe not, he already had over 4,000 last year as a rookie), but this will happen to some extent. Not to mention, all of the backs in this backfield are capable receivers, and will be weapons in more ways than one.
Extending Stewart was the right move by the Panthers, and I can't wait to see him continue playing in the blue, black, and white—hopefully for the rest of his career.