We may have seen this movie with Panthers' backfield before

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers cut then-all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams three years ago in part to clear $2 million in salary-cap space and in part because he was viewed as an aging back coming off a subpar season.

Could the same thing happen to Jonathan Stewart, who last season passed Williams as Carolina’s all-time leading rusher?

Whether the Panthers move forward with Stewart, who turns 31 next month, after an underachieving 2017 season or release him to clear $3.7 million in cap room will say a lot about the direction of the offense under new coordinator Norv Turner.

Next up: Running backs

2017 grade: C-plus. The Panthers ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing this past season with 131.4 yards per game, but that was in large part due to quarterback Cam Newton averaging a career-best 47.1 yards per game. Take Newton out of the equation and Carolina’s run game was mediocre at best. Stewart averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry and Christian McCaffrey wasn’t much better at 3.7. The plus comes from McCaffrey’s team-leading 80 catches. Only Alvin Kamara (81) among the rookie backs had more.

Under contract (2018 salary-cap number): Jonathan Stewart $5,218,750; Christian McCaffrey $3,918,478; Fozzy Whittaker $1,150,000; Cameron Artis-Payne $746,565; FB Alex Armah $555,000. Total: $11,588,793

Key free agents: None

The good: McCaffrey definitely became the dynamic receiver out of the backfield the Panthers talked about when they selected him with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft. His 80 catches represented 27.3 percent of the team’s receptions. He had one of his most explosive games as a receiver in the playoff loss to New Orleans, catching six passes for 101 yards and a touchdown (56 yards). His best all-around game came in a December victory against Green Bay in which he rushed for 63 yards on 12 carries (5.3 YPC) and caught six passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. Stewart’s most impressive outing came the week before when he rushed for 103 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries. He had only three rushing touchdowns the rest of what was a disappointing season. Stewart believes he still has something to prove, which is good if true. He also doesn’t come at an extremely high price tag, also good. Remember, before Williams was released after the 2014 season, he and Stewart combined to count more than $10 million in cap space and in 2016 Stewart counted about $9.5 million alone.

The bad: Let’s start with Stewart. He produced only two 100-yard rushing games and had none in the first nine. He had minus-4 yards on eight carries in a prime-time loss to Philadelphia in Week 6. He wasn’t able to take advantage of the attention defenses were paying to McCaffrey and at times looked like a 30-year-old back. He had eight negative runs in one game. What McCaffrey failed to do throughout most of the season was make the dynamic big plays in either the passing or running game. He didn’t get his first rushing touchdown until the ninth game and had only two all season. He didn’t have a run longer than 11 yards through the first eight games. He also didn’t consistently have big plays in the passing game. His longest during the regular season was 37 yards. This after Stewart said during training camp that the former Stanford star couldn’t be stopped in one-on-one coverage.

The draft: Don’t be surprised if the Panthers select a back somewhere in the second through fifth rounds. If they release Stewart it’s almost guaranteed. They need a long-term replacement for Stewart as a power back. Artis-Payne, selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, doesn’t appear to be that player. Turner has history of building around the foundation of a solid running game and often with two backs. There are a lot of quality power backs, like Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Arizona State’s Kalen Ballage, that might be a good fit on the second or even third day of the draft.

Final thought: I could see the Panthers overhauling the entire backfield outside of McCaffrey and fullback Armah. Cutting Stewart would save $3,718,750 in cap space. You could clear another $1,150,000 off the books by cutting Whittaker, whose role is similar to that of McCaffrey. They could use that money to keep a player like free-agent left guard Andrew Norwell if the price tag doesn’t get too high. Artis-Payne might be worth another year if Stewart is released because the price tag is low. But if the Panthers are going to move forward with a running game that doesn’t depend as heavily on Newton to carry it, they’ll need upgrades.