Is Jonathan Stewart Ready to Bounce Back in a Big Way?
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart notched an impressive 20 rushing touchdowns and almost 2,000 rushing yards in his first two seasons in the NFL. In his second year (2009), he ranked seventh in scoring among running backs in fantasy football, according NFL.com.
That’s some pretty solid production for a guy who has always split time with fellow running back and partner in crime DeAngelo Williams.
Unfortunately, the NFL analyzes players in a “what have you done for me lately?” sort of way, and the answer for Stewart is "not much." The injury bug has hit him hard (bad ankles in 2012 and a torn MCL in 2013), and his production diminished drastically.
In turn, 2014 fantasy projections aren’t exactly optimistic for Stewart. We here at numberFire have him ranked as the 55th-best running back (view our complete rankings here), which puts him buried on the bench in most 12-team leagues, and maybe even a waiver wire pickup in smaller leagues.
That means the book is all but closed on Stewart then, right?
Not so fast.
Stewart appears to be primed for a bounce-back season, and everything seems to be falling right into place in 2014.
The Proof Is in the
The advanced metrics that we use at numberFire (centered around Net Expected Points or NEP, which you can read more about here) illustrate that Stewart was an elite rusher early on in his career. By looking at Stewart’s Rushing Net Expected Points (Rushing NEP), which looks at the number of expected points a rusher acquires via the ground game, we can see that Stewart was once a top NFL running back. In fact, he ranked in the top 10 in nearly all of numberFire's metrics in three out of his first four relevant years as a pro (minimum 150 carries):
|Year||Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP/Carry||Success Rate|
|2008||12.89 (5th)||0.07 (5th)||43.72% (13th)|
|2009||23.34 (3rd)||0.11 (2nd)||44.80% (10th)|
|2010||-25.51 (31st)||-0.14 (32nd)||35.39% (32nd)|
|2011||13.68 (5th)||0.10 (3rd)||50% (1st)|
In 2008, Stewart rushed the ball 183 times. Among players with similar volume (160-200 rushes), Stewart ranked second of eight in Rushing Net Expected Points.
In 2009, the numbers were even better. Stewart carried the ball 221 times, and ranked second among the 22 running backs with 200 or more carries. Only Chris Johnson, who rushed for over 2,000 yards, was better.
The key to remember here is opportunity. Stewart obviously hasn’t had the number of touches to do anything truly positive for his team of late, and he hasn’t been remotely healthy over the last two years. But check out his number of rushes over the span of his career below and how they consistently decrease:
The opportunity just haven’t been there recently because of the injuries.
So, what might happen if Stewart’s finally healthy? Everyone loves a comeback story, and why not Stewart? Let’s dive a littler deeper into why 2014 could be a return to form.
Stewart’s Health & Upside
For the first time in two seasons, it appears as though Stewart is finally healthy.
“Very excited about having Jonathan on the field,” head coach Ron Rivera told David Newton of ESPN.com. “He’s healthy again. He’s moving the way we need him to move. I like what we’re getting out of him.”
“Even Jonathan is saying this is the first time he’s been healthy [in awhile]. So that’s a good thing.”
It seems as though Stewart’s been in the league forever, but he’s surprisingly still in the prime of his career at a ripe age of 27 (for comparison, teammate DeAngelo Williams is 31).
Another crucial piece to keep in mind with Stewart is that he hasn’t carried a significant workload in his six-year NFL career. In fact, he has 63% less career rushing attempts as counterpart Williams does.
In addition, the Panthers should have an improved interior offensive line after drafting athletic guard Trai Turner, while returning a now healthy left guard Amini Silatolu. Not to mention, Pro-Bowl center Ryan Kalil is one of the best in the NFL at his position. The Panthers have the potential to be one of the NFL’s best rushing units in 2014.
As fantasy owners enter the late rounds of their drafts, Stewart could be a decent option. In fact, owners are already buying into him, as seen by the recent movement on FleaFlicker.com. If he remains healthy (a big if, mind you), he has the ability to produce at a high level given his past.
Then again, it’s rarely a good strategy to bet on “potential”, and late-round running backs tend to have a very high bust rate, as our own JJ Zachariason tells us here.
Nevertheless, JJ’s study points out that a diamond in the rough can still be found. With that being the case, owners should think seriously about taking a flier on Stewart if he happens to be on the board towards the end of their draft.