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Panthers GM flew back from combine to tell Jonathan Stewart of release

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney simply wasn’t dancing around the question on Tuesday when he said that key personnel decisions, including one on the future of running back Jonathan Stewart, were a fluid situation.

Hurney simply didn’t want Stewart, the team’s all-time leading rusher, to hear or read he was being released before the two had a chance to talk.

Hurney also didn’t want to tell Stewart, who returned to Charlotte by plane on Wednesday morning, the news over the phone.

He was so dedicated to personally delivering the tough news to the 30-year-old back that Hurney flew back to Charlotte from the NFL combine in Indianapolis so he could meet Stewart on Wednesday before flying back to the combine to continue that process.

By doing so, Hurney avoided the public relations disaster the team created in 2014, when then-general manager Dave Gettleman released all-time leading wide receiver Steve Smith. Smith went on a Charlotte radio station and said he was “stabbed in the back" and criticized coach Ron Rivera and Gettleman for not telling him face-to-face what “was going on."

The way Hurney handled Stewart’s release speaks to the way he operates. He admittedly learned between his first stint as Carolina’s GM and his second -- he was let go after a 1-5 start in 2012 and rehired last July, after Gettleman was fired -- that he needed to be more analytical than loyal. But he didn’t forget the people side of the business, which always made him a good fit for the culture of the organization.

Now Hurney faces the fluid situation of helping new offensive coordinator Norv Turner rebuild the offense around franchise quarterback Cam Newton.

The nucleus of the line is there, with the exception of free-agent left guard Andrew Norwell. Hurney also used the word "fluid" when asked if re-signing Norwell was possible now that he has cleared an additional $10 million in cap space, giving him about $30 million overall.

If that signing doesn’t happen, the Panthers have the option of moving 2017 second-round pick Taylor Moton from tackle to guard or adding somebody else in free agency or the draft.

The assembly of weapons around Newton is the most fluid situation. Christian McCaffrey, last year’s first-round pick, will take over as the lead back. He earned that, so releasing Stewart on the downside of his career was the right move. Who will be the counterpunch to McCaffrey? That remains undetermined.

The Panthers have Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne, but neither is considered a solid No. 2 back. In all likelihood, they’ll add another back in the draft; it's a position Hurney calls maybe the deepest in the draft.

The second round could be loaded with quality.

Carolina has Devin Funchess at wide receiver and likely will complement him with 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel, who is coming off surgery to repair torn ligaments in his ankle. Damiere Byrd also will be in the mix as he returns from a leg injury.

Both offer the speed Hurney insists the offense -- and Newton -- needs to improve. But Samuel and Byrd still are somewhat unproven, so the Panthers likely will use a high draft pick on a dynamic receiver. Much of the pre-draft speculation is that the pick will be in the first round, No. 24 overall.

Again, it’s a fluid situation, depending on what happens in free agency.

Parting with Stewart was just the start.