Many eyebrows around the NFL were probably raised in unison when Tiki Barber announced he wanted to return to the league, five years after turning his back on football. Forget the skepticism about whether the 36-year-old still has what it takes on the gridiron. The former New York Giant could actually be an ideal fit for one NFL team.
In the 2011 draft, the Carolina Panthers used the first overall pick to select Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. The hope is that Newton can lead a revival for a franchise which managed only two wins in 2010. After selecting Newton, the job for the Panthers has become surrounding him with enough talented parts to help facilitate a smooth transition to the pro game.
Carolina began by moving quickly to secure the services of veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey from the New Orleans Saints. If he can stay healthy, Shockey should be a useful safety valve during Newton's rookie campaign. But the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner is sure to need other experienced and dependable weapons around him.
During his career, Tiki Barber was a durable player who actually managed to increase his production as he got older. After overcoming the fumbling problems that blighted his early career, Barber became one of the league's premier backs, under the strict supervision of Giants head coach Tom Coughlin.
His quick feet and slashing style of running made Barber an elusive and powerful opponent for defenses to try to corral. Barber also proved to be an effective receiver, leading the Giants in receptions in 2001 and 2003.
If Barber has retained his moves and can prove his fitness, his diverse skills would be invaluable to a rookie quarterback. As a runner he could supplement the efforts of Jonathan Stewart. Stewart figures to be the workhorse in the backfield and Carolina will need somebody to spell him, especially if they lose DeAngelo Williams in free agency.
Barber's ability to run precise routes and locate the soft spot in the zone would also make him a useful check-down receiver for Newton.
A back posing a multiple threat is crucial in an offense featuring Cam Newton. Much of the former Auburn star's game is predicated on creating confusion for a defense, regarding his true intentions on any given play. Utilizing a large number of quick fakes, Newton is able to disguise potential pass routes or handoffs to a back, until the very last second.
An elusive runner like Barber could also encourage the Panthers to retain the option play for Newton. Built similarly to ex-NFL quarterback Daunte Culpepper, Newton is a more athletic and fluid runner. Defenses cannot risk ignoring his threat to scramble for a single snap.
One note of caution for the Panthers if they were to offer Barber a contract might be his potential influence on the locker room. The former Virginia cavalier left the NFL under a storm and his subsequent comments about his time in New York, often created the image of an opinionated and egotistical player difficult to control.
Pairing Barber with another outspoken player in Shockey, may not be the most suitable combination for Cam Newton to be exposed to in his rookie year. Newton himself was often dogged by questions concerning off-field issues while at Auburn.
New Panthers head coach Ron Rivera developed a reputation for being able to cope with strong personalities as defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. If Carolina could handle Barber's baggage, the Giants' all-time leading rusher could become an important contributor to the development of the new franchise savior.