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Why Panthers shouldn't release RB Jonathan Stewart

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Panthers should consider breaking ties with Stewart (0:48)

ESPN's John Clayton explains that a bold move by the Panthers to release running back Jonathan Stewart might make sense, given his age and Carolina's need to free up cap space. (0:48)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a time late in the 2016 season when I was convinced it made sense for the Carolina Panthers to cut ties with running back Jonathan Stewart.

ESPN's John Clayton still believes it does, arguing this week (above) that Carolina should make the "bold move" and release the 13th pick of the 2008 draft.

It would be a bold move.

It also would be a bad move.

Clayton's arguments are sound. Stewart is a month from turning 30, an age when the production of running backs typically starts to decline. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry, the second-lowest mark of his career, this past season.

Cutting him would clear $6.25 million from the salary cap, and this is a good year for running backs in the draft.

It all makes sense.

But then you have to consider that the Panthers are in the process of evolving the offense to take the running load off quarterback Cam Newton. They are trying to give Newton, who has been hit more than any quarterback in the NFL since he entered the league in 2011, more protection.

Do you really want to leave that in the hands of a rookie?

Forget Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott. What he did this past season as a rookie, leading the league in rushing with 1,631 yards, was amazing. It was also the exception to the rule. Elliott played behind arguably the best offensive line in the league. The Cowboys didn't have to depend on him to protect rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.

Newton played behind an offensive line that, in the words of coach Ron Rivera, suffered "position catastrophe" in terms of injuries. Imagine how much worse it would have been for Newton if a rookie had been asked to help with protection.

According to Pro Football Focus, Elliott had a 60.1 grade in pass blocking on 66 pass-blocking snaps. Stewart got a grade of 85.3 on 99 pass-blocking snaps. No other back scored higher.

That's a big reason the Panthers shouldn't cut Stewart. Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman will be the first to say it is "rare" for a rookie back to be a dependable pass-blocker.

"They really are [rare]," Gettleman said in 2014 as he debated the value of keeping Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert on the roster while counting $13.9 million against the salary cap. "There are some guys you can watch 10 tapes on and they never pick up the blitz. They're gone.

"Blitz pickup is a huge issue. It's big."

What Stewart offers in terms of pass blocking is offset by any decline he may experience in running production.

And there's no guarantee Stewart's production will decrease. He rushed for 824 yards, 19th-most in the NFL, despite missing three games and playing behind a makeshift offensive line.

Stewart showed he can be highly effective in a Monday night win at Washington in December, when he rushed for 132 yards on 25 carries.

Williams, who was released after the 2014 season, proved there is life for a back after 30. He rushed for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns and added 367 yards receiving for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015.

He was 32.

Stewart may have even more tread on his career. He missed much of the 2012 and '13 seasons with injuries, and prior to that he shared the load with Williams for four years.

The Panthers should consider a running back in a deep draft. With the eighth overall pick, they should consider LSU's Leonard Fournette, Florida State's Dalvin Cook or Stanford's Christian McCaffrey.

They need to prepare for life after Stewart.

But it's rare that one back plays all 16 games. Only eight of the top 20 in rushing did this past season.

And to be fair, Stewart has played in 13 games each of the past three seasons. That's not bad.

Put Stewart with a dynamic rookie, and the Panthers have created an offense in which Newton doesn't have to run so much. That makes more sense than pairing a rookie with Fozzy Whittaker or Cameron Artis-Payne.

Whittaker is basically a third-down back, and he's still unsigned. The only three games Artis-Payne was active last season were those that Stewart missed. Artis-Payne had 85 yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns against Tampa Bay, but was otherwise underwhelming.

The final argument for keeping Stewart is that the Panthers really don't need the cap space. They're already more than $50 million under the cap.

So while it once seemed to make sense to move on from Stewart, it makes more sense to keep him.