Chuck Burton/Associated Press
The Carolina Panthers surprised a lot of people last year by going 12-4 and winning the NFC South for the first time since 2008.
Most of the credit goes to a stud defensive performance and Cam Newton's heroics. Yes, the Panthers finished 11th in team rushing with 2,026 yards. But Newton accounted for nearly 30 percent of that production and was the team's high rusher in six regular-season games.
DeAngelo Williams looked a far cry from his 2008 self. Per Pete Damilatis of Pro Football Focus, "It’s been a long time since Williams led all halfbacks with 63 forced missed tackles and a +13.8 running grade in 2008; he posted 35 missed tackles and a -0.9 grade this season."
Williams, the 10th-highest paid back in 2013, finished 22nd in yards per rushing attempt (4.2) and found the end zone just four times. He and Jonathan Stewart—who combined for just one 100-yard game last year—combine for a $10.6 million cap hit this year. Only Buffalo, Kansas City, Minnesota and Philadelphia pay their running backs more. They also all had a 1,000-yard rusher, save for the Bills, who nearly had two.
Stewart managed to get on the field for only six games in 2013, his second campaign missing significant time. With running backs going out of style, paying a backup $3 million for 244 total yards and $4.6 million this season has to sting.
A resurgence in the Panthers' running game is vital to the team repeating its success of a year ago. An already bare cupboard of receivers in 2013 has undergone a complete overhaul, though not necessarily for the better. Gone are Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, replaced by rookie Kelvin Benjamin and middling veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood.
Suffice to say if Carolina doesn't get either 2008 DeAngelo Williams or 2009 Jonathan Stewart, Newton will have a long season.