'Fat Boy' Mike Tolbert will play a big role in Panthers replacing Kelvin Benjamin

Versatile Panthers running back Mike Tolbert, entering his eighth NFL season, has scored 40 TDs. Chuck Burton/AP

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Imagine you're a defensive back or linebacker staring across the line of scrimmage at a 5-foot-9, 250-pound running back that goes the by the nicknames "Fat Boy" and "Tub of Goo."

"You wouldn’t think he would actually be out in routes, catching passes," Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said as he described what opponents must think of Mike Tolbert.

You’d be wrong.

Tolbert is the X-factor on the Carolina offense. He might look more like a plumber than an NFL player, but in many ways he is an example of how the Panthers plan to replace wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Tolbert can play fullback, running back, tight end and line up wide like a receiver. He’s Carolina’s best option outside of Newton on short-yardage or goal-line plays.

"He’s a guy that really makes it hard to predict our offense, because we line him up [in so many places] and [do] so many things with him," Davis said.

"He’s definitely a huge key. You look at the games we played last year without him, versus the games we played with him, that speaks for itself."

The Panthers were 6-2 with Tolbert last season, 1-6-1 without him. They needed three players to replace all he did. Without him they had to keep Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, their leading receiver, in more to block.

The two-tight end attack with Ed Dickson also suffered, because Dixon had to stay in and block more.

"You kind of think, 'OK, he’s a decoy,'" nickel back Bene' Benwikere said of what teams think when Tolbert lines up wide. "You try to say that, and then when they throw him the ball and you’re running one-on-one with him, you can’t say that no more.

"It’s kind of a mismatch."

The Panthers hoped to create mismatches with the 6-foot-5 Benjamin and 6-4 rookie receiver Devin Funchess. Now they’ll go about it in a different way.

They’ve done it before. Tolbert caught 27 passes during each of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He caught 54 in 2011 at San Diego.

"We’re kind of over the hardship of getting over losing a guy like Kelvin, and moving past that the best way you can, realizing it’s not so much about replacing Kelvin as much as it is guys stepping up to collectively fill that void," Olsen said.

Tolbert is a big part of that collective group.

"He’s a big loss," Tolbert said of Benjamin. "But we’re going to be ready. We’ve got different ways we can attack teams. So we’ll be ready to go."

Tolbert actually likes lining up wide and having opponents underestimate him because of his build.

"I know what they think," Tolbert said. "They think decoy. Every time I line up out there I hear Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis, 'decoy!'

"Think that if you want when I go deep on you."

Can he go deep?

"You’ve seen me run," Tolbert said, his voice raising a pitch higher. "Yeah, I can go deep."

The Panthers certainly don’t underestimate Tolbert in practice -- at least not anymore.

"He’s a guy that actually has moves," Davis said. "He’s probably the best dancer on this team. I don’t think there’s much that Mike Tolbert can’t do."