Don't look for Panthers to use 25th pick on a running back

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The decision to release all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams doesn’t mean the Carolina Panthers might use the 25th pick of the draft on a running back.

It would be stunning if they did.

The Panthers still have a solid core of backs without the 31-year-old Williams, who Monday night on a local television station announced that team officials said he wouldn’t be back in 2015 despite having one year left on his contract.

It starts with Jonathan Stewart. A first-round pick out of Oregon in 2008, he assumed the role as the primary back late last season when Williams was out with a broken hand. He rushed for 809 yards in 2014, with 594 of that coming in the final six games.

Stewart sparked a late-season 5-1 run, but injuries still have to be a concern. He missed three games in 2014 and 17 over the previous two seasons.

The organization likes the change of pace journeyman Fozzy Whittaker, an exclusive rights free agent, brings. He’s not somebody you want to carry the load, but he’s adequate as a fill-in.

Mike Tolbert can play halfback as well as fullback, his primary role. He missed eight games last season with a leg injury but has been durable for his career. He’s best on short-yardage situations and as a receiver out of the backfield.

The Panthers still might use a draft pick on a back. They just won’t use it in the first round for Georgia’s Todd Gurley or Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon -- unless one of the top-rated backs falls into the second or even third round.

Carolina also isn’t expected to go after a top free agent back such as DeMarco Murray should Dallas not re-sign the league’s leading rusher. The Panthers already have $8.3 million tied up in Stewart and $3.4 million in Tolbert.

At best they might consider a back like C.J. Spiller (Bufflalo), Mark Ingram (New Orleans) or Ryan Mathews (San Diego) at a bargain. But even that is doubtful with much bigger free agent needs at left tackle, wide receiver and cornerback.

In all likelihood, you’ll see the Panthers fill out their backfield in the draft somewhere between the third and fifth rounds. They thought they had a sixth-round steal last year in Tyler Gaffney before the Stanford star suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp and was claimed off waivers by New England.

Here are a few backs that may be available in the middle rounds:

  • Ameer Abdullah, 5-9, 205, Nebraska: Could go as early as the second round. Led the Big Ten in rushing with more than 1,600 yards this past season. A tough, physical runner that fits Carolina’s power running game.

  • Duke Johnson, 5-9, 207, Miami: The school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards. More of a speedster on the corner who has good hands catching out of the backfield.

  • Jay Ajayi, RB, 6-0, 221, Boise State: Rushed for more than 1,800 yards as a junior this past season. Also a solid receiver with more than 500 yards receiving.

I could go on, but as general manager Dave Gettleman said at the combine last week the draft is deep at this position.