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I think most will agree that Jonathan Stewart has the talent and ability to become the next elite RB in the NFL. Playing for the Panthers may keep him from reaching that level anytime in the near future, however. There are a lot of questions to be answered in Carolina, and how that all shakes out will determine the level of production for Stewart. With three years left on his contract, he should finally have the opportunity to be the featured back in the offense.
First and foremost, we need to see DeAngelo find a new home. Where this is all but a certainty, there’s no such thing as a sure thing in today’s NFL. If Williams for some odd reason stays in town, Stewart remains as a high end RB2. Assuming “Smash” finds employment elsewhere, “Dash” still has competition in Carolina. Goodson took advantage of injuries to JStew and Tyrell Sutton and made a case to be a contributor to the offense moving forward. He showed his ability not only running the ball, but in the passing game as well. Some will make a case for a three-headed back field similar to what we’ve seen out of Dallas. Sutton missed a golden opportunity with his injury and very well may have lost the back-up role to Goodson. Don’t count him out yet, however, as he has the potential to be a productive member of the offense.
All of this, of course, is subject to change with a changing of the guard in Charlotte. Ron Rivera finds himself as the new head coach after owner Jerry Richardson decided not to bring back John Fox for a 10th season. Running back coach Jim Skipper also has been informed that he will not be returning to the team in 2011. Rivera served as defensive coordinator for the Bears from 2004-2006, leading the formidable defense that helped the team reach the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. He also led San Diego’s top ranked defense this season. If he can turn the defense around, the Panthers may find themselves in more competitive games which will allow them to run the ball more often. Pay close attention through the summer months to see how Rivera and his new regime approach the RB situation as I’m sure we’ll see some sort of committee with all of the talent they have in the backfield.
Sutton and Goodson could earn a prominent role if Stewart suffers from injury again. He hasn’t missed much game time due to his injuries, but it still has its impact. He’s missed the OTA’s in both of his first two seasons. He had surgery before the draft in 2008 which kept him out, missing valuable time as a rookie. He then dealt with a toe injury throughout his first season, which is said to have led to his issue with his Achilles tendon. In week 9 of this season he collided with Darren Sharper, knocking him out of the contest and causing him to miss games against the Bucs and Ravens. He needs to stay on the field or he may find himself labeled with an “injury prone” tag.
Assuming the new coach doesn’t move in a different direction at the quarterback position, they will implement a run-heavy offense as they continue to groom Jimmy Clausen. The wide receivers fall short after Steve Smith, who has struggled over the past two seasons himself, and he’ll be 32 heading into next season. Dwayne Jarret was thought to be the answer as the WR2, but he fell well short of expectations. LaFell is an intriguing prospect, but the lack-luster offense made him a difficult player to assess in his rookie year. As a whole, the team has large strides to make during the off-season to find itself as a viable offense in the league. Stewart will see a direct effect in the success or lack-there-of from the rest of the Panther’s offense.
With the lead role, JStew should gain plenty of yards on the ground, even with defenses focusing in on him. This season he’ll still be held short of top 10 RB numbers due to the offensive struggles. The window is getting smaller to obtain Stewart before he reaches RB1 status. He won’t come cheap as expectations are still high, but the price will go through the roof as he showcases his talents as the main back. He’ll be a great piece for both contending teams and re-building teams as he will be only 24 heading into next season.