Part eight of my position-by-position analysis of the Carolina Panthers' roster focuses on an area that hurts the team under the salary cap more than any other.
Not by a long shot.
Next up: Running backs
2013 grade: C-plus. DeAngelo Williams started off strong and finished with his highest rushing total (843 yards) since 2009, but slumped toward the end of the season. Mike Tolbert came on strong at the end, but Jonathan Stewart continued to be slowed by injuries.
Under contract (2014 salary cap number): DeAngelo Williams ($6,000,000), Jonathan Stewart ($5,550,000), Mike Tolbert (3,325,000), Kenjon Barner ($521,450), Michael Zordich ($496,000). Total: ($15,892,450).
Key free agents: None.
Good news: Everyone is back, although that's not as great as one might think (I'll address this in the bad news). DeAngelo Williams, despite his age (30), was solid when given 15 or more carries a game. Mike Tolbert excelled at the tough yards inside, and became a good option as a receiver. If Stewart can stay healthy -- he played only six games due to ankle and knee injuries -- and get back the explosiveness he showed in his first three seasons he could be a big surprise in 2014. Rookie Kenjon Barner also could provide a boost if coaches can find playing time for him.
Bad news: Money. The Panthers have about $14.8 million tied up in Williams, Stewart and Tolbert. Williams and Stewart rank among the 11 highest-paid backs in the NFL. I know injuries played into this, but that's a lot of money considering the production. And it's a big reason the team is so strapped under the salary cap. To make matters worse, the hits on Williams and Stewart are too big for the team to consider cutting either to clear cap room and too big for another team to trade for one. And since you have to justify their pay with playing time, that doesn't leave playing time for a player like Barner to prove himself.
The draft: The Panther picked Barner in the sixth round last season and he barely got on the field. It seems highly unlikely they'll use another draft pick here with so many other needs and so much money already devoted to the position.