Carolina Panthers: Full Position and Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back

Charles EdwardsContributor IJune 9, 2014

Carolina Panthers: Full Position and Depth Chart Analysis at Running Back

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers running back unit was once a source of strength and effectiveness. It has been a while since the Panthers featured a 1,000-yard rusher in their backfield—2009 to be exact. In the years following, Carolina running backs have struggled to stay healthy, pick up significant yardage on game day and have struggled to be the scoring machines that defined their earlier years.

    DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart still continue to make up the veteran presence on the team, but new additions in Kenjon Barner, Tyler Gaffney and Darrin Reaves look to make up the next generation of running backs for the Panthers. Lining up in front of them are fullbacks Mike Tolbert and Michael Zordich.

    With the doubt surrounding the contributions of the receiving corps and the fact Carolina is still one of the few teams in the league to embrace a power running game, the running backs will be tasked with the job of moving the ball and setting up the offense with many scoring opportunities. 

    Can the unit get the necessary help up front from a revamped offensive line?

    The next few weeks will serve as bit of a measuring stick for the potential success the running game will receive, but the real test will come when the season kicks off.

    For now, here is a look at each running back and fullback that will start out with the team when camp opens.

DeAngelo Williams

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Current Status: Starter

    Career Stats

    Rushing AttemptsRushing YardsTouchdowns
    1,3706,62746

     

    DeAngelo Williams has been a mainstay in the Carolina offense since 2006, and during that time he has enjoyed some success. He has two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt and led the league in rushing touchdowns in 2008. However, he has not rushed for 1,000 yards since 2009 and has only gained over 800 yards on the ground twice since.

    Williams hopes to rebound and produce a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Much of his success will depend on how well the offensive line performs, and if it can help open holes and allow him to get that initial push through the gap, he will be in good shape.

    How he will perform in 2014 is still a mystery.

    The one thing we can take away from having Williams on the roster is he can still make a big play. That much was evident on a wheel route against the New York Jets late last season when he took a swing pass 72 yards to the end zone.

    It should be interesting to see how he follows up his 2013 season. On one hand, he rushed for the most yards since he eclipsed 1,000 in 2009, but on the other, he only had three rushing scores (four counting his touchdown reception).

    Currently, he has been taking snaps with the first-team offense during OTAs.

Jonathan Stewart

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Current Status: Backup/Spot-Starter

    Career Stats

     Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Touchdowns
     866 4,016 27

     

    At his peak, Jonathan Stewart was the perfect running back to spell DeAngelo Williams. In 2009, he rushed for 1,133 yards and gave the Carolina Panthers two running backs with over 1,000 yards rushing. However, his potential was shown earlier than that when he and Williams each rushed for over 100 yards in a late game in November 2008 at home vs. Detroit (Stewart had 130 yards rushing and a touchdown and Williams rushed for 120 and two scores).

    Unfortunately, Stewart has experienced a bit of a dropoff in production since the end of 2011. Over his first four seasons, he had rushed for at least 700 yards (twice scoring 10 touchdowns in a season). Since then, he has 516 rushing yards and one touchdown.

    The reason for his lack of production mostly stems from injuries. He has appeared in 15 games the past two seasons and has battled ankle injuries

    The good news is he is feeling stronger in OTAs and should be ready to go by the time Week 1 arrives. Having him available to spell Williams will mean a huge boost to the Carolina offense as he is an excellent third-down back and red-zone threat.

Kenjon Barner

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    Current Status: Third-String Running Back/Return Specialist

    Career Stats

    Rushing AttemptsRushing YardsTouchdowns
    670

     

    Kenjon Barner's career has been one that has yet to fully tap into its full potential. He was a non-factor in the offense last year as he only appeared in eight games; when Barner was on the field, his primary role seemed to be on special teams.

    Special teams appears to be where he will see the majority of his playing time, especially with the departure of Ted Ginn, Jr. There is still a chance Barner gets a few reps in the offense this upcoming season, but it may be as a last resort or if the Panthers are up big—or down big.

    If Barner stays healthy, his speed and elusiveness could give the Carolina Panthers an incredible weapon on special teams. The team is entering an era where the young guys are presented with opportunities, and Barner is one of those who can be an impact player if all goes well.

Tyler Gaffney

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Current Status: Fourth-String Running Back/Special Teams

    Career Stats: N/A - Rookie

     

    The selection of Tyler Gaffney was puzzling to some, especially with the Carolina Panthers possessing an already crowded backfield. However, general manager Dave Gettleman is the the type of person who does not make decisions on draft day lightly and without seeing the value a player can offer his team. 

    Gaffney was a featured back at Stanford, and he has the potential to get some playing time during the season or be an option to replace either DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart. For now, he seems to be the kind of player that may be used in pass-blocking situations when he is in the offensive huddle and should serve a similar role on special teams.

    Carolina's desire to move the ball via the power running game may prompt Ron Rivera to try him out at the goal line with either Mike Tolbert or Michael Zordich blocking for him. Gaffney has serious leg strength and could use that to penetrate the gap for a short-yardage pick up. Look out for such an opportunity during the preseason.

     

     

Darrin Reaves

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    CHRIS KEANE/Associated Press

    Current Status: Fifth-String Running Back

    Career Stats: N/A - Rookie

    Darrin Reaves was signed by the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent. He played his college ball at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and enjoyed a solid career there. He rushed for 1,037 yards in 2012 and almost repeated the feat in 2013, coming up short at 934. He did score at least 12 touchdowns in both seasons.

    How does he fit with the Panthers?

    It seems he may be a scout team prospect the team could call upon if injuries take a toll on the running backs unit. Former Panther Armond Smith experienced a similar role during his time in Carolina. It's too early to make an accurate determination, but the field is very crowded at the position, and the odds of him making it to the final roster are very slim.

Mike Tolbert

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Current Status: Starter (Fullback)

    Career Stats

    Rushing AttemptsRushing YardsTouchdowns
    4961,95432

     

    Mike Tolbert's career in Carolina has only lasted two seasons, but he has proven to be an asset. This has been particularly true in short-yardage and goal-line situations. His first year was a bit of a disappointment, but last year he was utilized more properly and resembled the player many saw in San Diego. His contributions even earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl.

    Much of the same should be expected of the human bowling ball as he enters his third year with the Panthers. He will be counted on to pick up blocks, protect Cam Newton in the pocket and pave the way for running backs.

    Additionally, he should see his fair share of touches, especially inside the red zone. If the offensive line helps generate a good push, Tolbert should have no problem picking up big yards. He's not fast, but he can do a lot of damage before he is brought down. 

    Carolina loves the power running game, and Tolbert should be a very big part of it. The offense will need him to pick it up when it matters most, and he should duplicate last year's numbers. Hopefully, he can get close to matching his career year of 2010 when he had 735 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. 

Michael Zordich

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Current Status: Backup (Fullback)

    Career Stats: N/A

    Michael Zordich has yet to play in any meaningful games as he was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. If he can rebound from the torn anterior cruciate ligament tear (ACL) he suffered last year against Chicago during the preseason, he will probably be competing with Richie Brockel for the backup spot. Brockel may be a backup tight end, but he does have experience as a fullback. Remember the trick play in Houston?

    It's unlikely the Panthers will carry both men on the final roster, and whoever emerges as the backup could very well be the backup fullback and tight end for the 2014 season. 

    For the moment, Zordich will need to show he has recovered from his injury and is ready to be a part of the team on a regular basis.

     

    Player information gathered from Panthers.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com.