Panthers likely to shuffle backfield

On the surface, Carolina’s signing of free-agent running back Mike Tolbert doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

The Panthers already have two good running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. It’s easy to look at this one and say, the Panthers simply are upgrading their No. 3 running back spot with Tolbert replacing Mike Goodson.

But I don’t think this is what that move is all about. Tolbert was brought in to be the No. 2 back behind either Williams or Stewart.

John Fox isn’t coaching the Panthers anymore, so the days of them collecting three or four backs and playing them extensively are over. Heck, there weren’t even enough carries to go around for Stewart and Williams last year, when coach Ron Rivera arrived and brought along offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Rivera and Chudzinski both previously worked in San Diego, where Tolbert spent the past four seasons.

He had the best year of his career in 2010, the last year Chudzinski and Rivera were with the Chargers. Tolbert’s the kind of back that can give you about 150 carries and catch 40 or 50 passes out of the backfield. He also can play special teams and is considered a good locker-room guy.

Williams and Stewart both were first-round picks by the Panthers and are highly regarded by the team. But it’s pretty obvious the Panthers just sent a message that either one could be available and other teams are going to start calling to inquire about trades.

It might be difficult to get a trade partner for Williams. The Panthers signed him to a huge contract last summer, which could scare off some suitors. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Panthers dealing Williams. Fox likes Williams a lot and could want a new toy for Peyton Manning in Denver. Some other team might be willing to take a shot on Williams.

But I think Stewart will be easier to trade (and Fox likes him too). He’s headed into the final year of his rookie contract and a team wouldn’t be taking on a huge deal. I’m thinking that between now and the draft, the Panthers will have added at least one draft pick and will be without either Stewart or Williams.