Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Jonathan Stewart basks in the adoration of the Carolina Panthers' fans. He'll have them—and the workload—all to himself in 2011.
Entering the 2010 season, Carolina's DeAngelo Williams interprets his "Double Trouble" backfield timeshare with 2008 first-rounder Jonathan Stewart as "a 50-50 split."
"We're each about 220 or 230 carries a year," Williams told ESPN's Pat Yasinkas back in March.
"I'd rather have that than 300-plus carries a year. That wears on your legs and you're not going to last long doing that."
Williams, who's 27 years old and heading into the final year of his rookie contract, observed that "30 [years old] is like the new 50 in the NFL, especially when it comes to tailbacks."
With negotiations for a potential extension hamstrung by the lack of a collective bargaining agreement, he'll play the upcoming season for $2.1 million.
But in 2011, barring a work stoppage, the Panthers will be forced to decide Williams' fate.
They could slap the franchise tag on him (if it's still an option, which is up for debate) to stall for another year, but it'd cost them upwards of $7 million without giving Williams long-term financial security.
Realistically, Williams could demand a contract based on the five-year, $31 million deal signed by Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew in 2009.
The Jaguars paid that figure for a featured back, but Williams would enter contract talks with better past production than Jones-Drew had as leverage.
Next year, he'll either sign that deal or leave—and there are several reasons Carolina might not even offer it.
Last season, Williams spent the Panthers' final three games nursing an injured ankle.
Over that stretch, Stewart racked up 470 yards and four scores on 73 touches, including the first receiving touchdown of the year by a Carolina tailback. The Panthers won all three games handily.
Offseason surgery has cleaned up Williams' ankle, but it won't have gone unnoticed that he broke down while Stewart, who missed most of training camp and struggled early in the year, picked up steam as the season wore on.
Now, for the first time in his professional career, Stewart is coming in on a medical high note.
He has yet to suit up for a full-contact practice, but head coach John Fox remarked recently that Stewart is "way farther ahead than this time last year."
According to ESPN fantasy injury analyst Stephania Bell, the surgery that repaired Stewart's left Achilles tendon this offseason will allow him to play with significantly less pain in 2010.
Since drafting Stewart with the 13th overall pick in 2008, Fox and general manager Marty Hurney have touted the advantages of their two-back system.
Beyond keeping "Double Trouble" fresh, Carolina's 525 rushing attempts in 2009 took a lot of heat off of floundering veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme and the inexperienced Matt Moore.
But Stewart, whose $14 million contract runs through 2012, has flashed all the tools to be a workhorse and is only getting better.
Meanwhile, the Panthers' quarterback situation has improved considerably. Between Moore and talented rookie Jimmy Clausen, Carolina will likely find a franchise signal-caller to build around.
Throw in the team's needs on the defensive side of the ball, and there's really only room for one well-paid running back after this coming season.
That's Stewart. Take the Panthers' ground game, subtract a fair amount of touches by backups and due to improved passing, and you've still got a potential top-five fantasy back in 2011. Surprise!