Coach Ron Rivera mentioned Stewart by name last week on ESPN’s NFL Insiders when talking about ways to take the running load off quarterback Cam Newton during the 2017 season.
“The biggest thing, our realization is that our primary runner cannot be our quarterback," Rivera said. “We’re going to look to do a little more backfield sets in terms of two backs and 12 personnel with the extra tight end as the lead blocker.
“We’ve got to get guys like Jonathan Stewart rolling. We’ve got to put it in our backs’ hands and get the ball to our playmakers.”
It seems unlikely Rivera would have mentioned Stewart by name if there were plans to release him as the Panthers did all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams after the 2014 season.
Williams was considered somewhat of a wild card in terms of the locker room culture Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman were trying to build.
Stewart is not.
Stewart will turn 30 in March, and that typically is a time running backs start to see a sharp decline in production. He also is scheduled to count $8,250,000 against the salary cap this season, and by releasing him with a post-June 1 designation the Panthers could clear $6.25 million from the salary cap.
Age and money were a part of why the Panthers released Williams.
But with a projected $50 million in cap space the Panthers aren’t in a position of needing to clear more space just for the sake of clearing space. And Stewart, plagued by injuries during his career, showed with 132 yards rushing on 25 carries in a December game at Washington he still has plenty to offer.
That the Panthers last week hired Stanford running backs coach Lance Taylor to replace wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl increased speculation about Stewart’s future.
Taylor coached Christian McCaffrey the past few seasons, raising speculation the Panthers might consider the Heisman Trophy finalist with the No. 8 pick of the draft.
But if that happens one likely would be a part of the solution with Stewart. That could re-create, at least for the last year of Stewart’s contract, the “Double Trouble’’ situation Carolina had for several years with Stewart and Williams splitting the load.
Remember, in 2009 Stewart and Williams became the first pair of backs on the same team to rush for more than 1,100 yards in the same season.
The two Super Bowl LI teams, New England and Atlanta, proved the advantages of having multiple good options at back. The Patriots relied this season on LaGarrette Blount, James White and Dion Lewis as runners and receivers.
White rushed for two touchdowns and caught 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s 34-28 overtime victory against Atlanta.
So look for Stewart, unless something changes, to be a part of Carolina’s effort to take Newton out of the running game.
But for now Stewart appears to be in the equation.
“Mike Shula and I sat down and we talked about the direction and the vision for what we want to try and do,” Rivera said of his offensive coordinator. “We’re going to mix some things up, obviously."