For as long as Jonathan Stewart has been with the Carolina Panthers, he has had to split the backfield with one of the franchise’s best running backs, DeAngelo Williams. The team decided to release Williams this offseason and essential put the responsibility on Stewart to carry the run game.
The way Stewart ran down the stretch last season it would make perfect sense. Over the final four weeks of the season Stewart ran for 402 yards, which was the third highest total in the NFL behind only Jeremy Hill and DeMarco Murray. In two of those four games, he ran for over 100 yards, including a 155 yard performance against the New Orleans Saints.
Over his career, Stewart has demonstrated that when he is given more carries in a game, he is actually more successful, and so are the Panthers. In 90 career games, Stewart has carried the ball 15 or more times only 23 times but in those games the Panthers are 18-5. When he carries the ball 20 or more times, the Panthers are 7-1.
The question now becomes whether or not Stewart could handle that workload over an entire 16 game season. In his seven years in the NFL, the highest rushing attempts he has had in one season was 221 in 2009.
If Stewart carries the ball 15 times a game and plays all 16 games, he would finish with 240 attempts. That number jumps up to 320 if he carries it 20 times a game.
The coaching staff could be hesitant to give him this many carries, especially with the injuries he has had the past few seasons. Stewart has not played a full 16-game season since 2011 but there is some uncertainty behind Stewart on the depth chart.
The Panthers re-signed Fozzy Whittaker after a decent season in 2014 but was a very small sample size. He had a career high in rushing attempts and yards with 32 attempts and 145 rushing yards. How will he respond to an increased workload?
The Panthers also added Cameron Artis-Payne, who they drafted in the fifth round this past draft. He was a workhorse for the Auburn Tigers last year with over 300 carries. He is a tough, hard runner who usually doesn’t go down on first contact. The hope is that he will be able to continue to run like this at the next level but is hard to tell with rookies how they will perform.
With the questions behind Stewart the coaching staff will have to be vigilant in managing his carries. Stewart has had to deal with injuries recently and the team could be in a tough spot if Stewart misses a significant amount of time.
At the end of the day though the Panthers are going to have to rely on Stewart in 2015. He is the team’s most talented running back and should get a bulk of the carries. The Panthers have clearly been successful when Stewart carries the ball and he is a key to the Panthers offense.
Brandon Croce is the Lead Publisher for PantherInsider.com. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonCroce.