NFC South top 25: No. 17

We continue our series on my projected top 25 players in the NFC South for the 2012 season with No. 17:

Jonathan Stewart, running back, Carolina

What he did in 2011: Stewart had the lowest rushing total (761 yards) of his career and rushed for only four touchdowns (he rushed for 10 touchdowns in each the 2008 and ’09 seasons). But there were several factors at play here. Stewart was splitting time with DeAngelo Williams, as he’s done throughout his career. In the days of John Fox, that meant there were plenty of carries to go around. But, in the days of coach Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers suddenly became a passing team. Stewart was productive when he carried the ball, but he carried a career-low 142 times.

Why he’s No. 17 in 2012: With Newton’s career really just getting started, the common assumption is that the Panthers are going to throw the ball even more. I think the common assumption might be wrong. The Panthers recognize they have a rare talent in Newton and they’re not going to suddenly go back to the way it was under Fox. They’re going to throw the football, but I think they want to balance their running attack more into the offense. They’d be foolish not to since they’ve got backs like Stewart, Williams and running back/fullback Mike Tolbert. I’m looking for Chudzinski to find more opportunities for Stewart and Williams. Both are too talented to not at least be close to 1,000 rushing yards.