The Carolina Panthers have the rare opportunity to erase a boneheaded decision made one year ago, and they have to take it.
The Panthers signed DeAngelo Williams to a five-year, $43 million contract in July of 2011, and now they must trade him. The decision to sign Williams never made sense. Running backs should never be signed long-term to such large contracts when they're nearing 30-years-old and injury prone. They also signed the undersized running back just months after drafting Cam Newton, with the implied intention to build the offense around Newton's arm and legs. Carolina also had Jonathan Stewart under contract, a younger player, who's more built for punishment.
This offseason, the Panthers truly outdid themselves in August by signing Stewart long-term for six years and $37.8 million just five months after signing the hefty Mike Tolbert to a four-year, $8.4 million contract. Add in half of Newton's $22 million contract -- since Cam is essentially 1/2 quarterback, 1/2 running back -- and the Panthers have $100 million tied up in their offensive backfield over the next six years.
Any three of those players would be more than enough to suit the modern-day NFL offensive tactic of not taxing running backs too heavily. Not even ten years ago, it was common to see backs tally over 400 touches a year. Of course, when RBs would get injured, or tail off in production just years later, teams wised up and limited the wear and tear on their rushers. But what Carolina is doing is taking that premise too far and they're not maximizing talent or production out of their talented -- and pricey -- players.
Last season, Williams led the team with just 155 carries, Stewart trailed with 142 while Newton picked up 126. They all stayed healthy, but the team still didn't win. This year, Williams is on pace for 139 carries, Stewart for 119, Tolbert for just 39 and Newton for 117. Frankly, that doesn't make any sense. And the team still isn't winning.
The man who signed all of these players, former general manager Marty Hurney, was fired just one week ago. That should tell you all you need to know about the decision to tie up so much salary-cap space in players that are untrustworthy, injury prone and overvalued -- running backs. Year after year, we see rushers taken in late rounds, or go undrafted, who excel in the NFL. This year's rookie crop includes Alfred Morris, Brandon Bolden and Darryl Richardson. Morris and Bolden both went undrafted, while Richardson was a seventh-round pick. Morris is third in the league in rushing while Bolden and Richardson have proved to be capable change-of-pace backs, which is all you need out of a second RB, especially when your quarterback is taking nearly 10 carries per game. Tolbert proved in San Diego that he's more than capable of being a premier No. 2 running back in this league.
Since Hurney was fired, the decision will come down to interim general manager Brandon Beane, owner Jerry Richardson and coach Ron Rivera. Richardson needs to realize this is no longer the 1959-NFL that he once played running back in. With such a pass heavy league, it makes no sense to carry three high-priced veteran RBs and a scrambling quarterback. If this Panthers team were playing 50 years ago, they'd be the cream of the crop, but for years now they've been ignoring their need to add a second wide receiver to take pressure off of Steve Smith, while stockpiling running backs.
If they can trade Williams -- basically for anything -- it will free up cap room while also giving them some draft picks to truly build a balanced offense. And to give Newton some more reliable targets down the field.
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