Making Sense of the Always Messy Carolina Panthers' Backfield

With Jonathan Stewart once again on the injury report, can another Panthers' running back become fantasy relevant?

According to the tried and true saying, there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

But with news of Panthers' running back Jonathan Stewart suffering a hamstring injury during the first week of training camp, I’d like to make an addition to the saying.

Death, taxes, and Jonathan Stewart on the injury report.

Stewart’s injury comes as no real surprise to those who have followed his career, and should place serious doubt on his viability moving forward. And although he claims he will be ready for Week 1, frequent soft-tissue injuries have proven to a major red flag.

Prior to his injury last week, Stewart was being touted by some as a savvy late-round flier for fantasy football purposes. In a crowded Panthers backfield devoid of any real standout talent, Stewart was as good as bet as anyone to get the majority of the carries this season.

While Stewart attempts to get healthy, it appears the door is wide open for another running back to take control of the backfield during training camp.

Will DeAngelo Williams Be Relevant Again?

The most tenured Panthers' running back is also the most likely to win the starting job outright if Stewart can't get right by Week 1.

Aside from 2010 when he missed 10 games, DeAngelo Williams has been a relatively consistent producer in Carolina, averaging 4.8 yards per carry over the course of his eight-year career. While Williams is far removed from his tremendous 2008 season where he rushed for 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns, he has shown himself to be a serviceable option for Carolina.

Let’s take a lot at how efficient Williams has been by using numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, which shows how many points a player adds for his team. Keep in mind that, while a negative Rushing NEP result may look really bad, it’s simply the result of it being more difficult to rack up large chunks of yardage in the run game as opposed to the passing game.

I've listed Williams' Rushing NEP metrics for the last two seasons in which Jonathan Stewart missed a combined 17 games. Williams’ ranks among running backs with similar volume are shown in parenthesis (roughly 20-25 running backs each year in the sample).

YearRushing NEPRushing NEP per AttemptSuccess Rate
2012-3.98 (5th)-0.02 (4th)40.94% (11th)
2013-6.52 (8th)-0.03 (8th)34.83% (21st)

Although Williams was middling at best in terms of Success Rate (the percentage of carries that positively affect a player’s NEP), he ranked in the top third in terms of both Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per Attempt in both seasons.

When you see how efficient Williams has been when given the starting gig in Carolina, there seems to be a disconnect as to how he's only found the end zone eight times in the last two seasons, which, in turn, has stunted his fantasy football potential.

Two 240-plus pound teammates are to blame.

Big, Giant Touchdown Vultures

While quarterback Cam Newton has caught criticism at times for his lack of accuracy while throwing the football, his ability as a runner has never come into question. In his first three seasons, Newton has averaged 121 attempts, 677 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground per year.

His size and strength make him a natural threat at the goal line, evidenced by 64.2% of his career rushing touchdowns coming from inside the five-yard line. Although his touchdowns that meet this criteria have dropped in each season (8, 7, 3), it’s clear that the Panthers coaching staff is willing to use their big-bodied quarterback when the team nears the end zone.

Another large individual who makes a living scoring touchdowns from close range is running back/fullback Mike Tolbert.

At 5’9”, 243 pounds, Tolbert is literally shaped like a bowling ball. And while he may not look like a prototypical running back, he has proven to be extremely effective in short-yardage situations.

81.3% of Tolbert’s career rushing touchdowns have come from inside the five-yard line. That's right; 81.3%.

Since arriving in Carolina in in 2012, Tolbert has averaged 77.5 carries per year, also showing that the Panthers trust him to carry the ball in more situations than just the goal line.

The table below shows 2013 Rushing NEP results for both Newton and Tolbert with their respective ranks among similar usage players in parenthesis. Newton’s ranks were among 11 quarterbacks with 40-plus carries, while Tolbert’s were among running backs with 50-150 carries.

PlayerRushing NEPRushing NEP per AttemptSuccess Rate
Cam Newton46.25 (1st)0.47 (2nd)62.63% (3rd)
Mike Tolbert2.92 (6th)0.03 (6th)40.59% (18th)

It should be noted that, due to their high touchdown-to-carry ratios, both Newton and Tolbert have a leg up on the competition. But this still shouldn't discount how beneficial both players are to the Panthers.

The Times They Are(n't) A-Changin'

My cheesy Bob Dylan reference aside, it’s going to take a large philosophical shift in offensive thinking from the Panthers in order for Williams, Stewart, or any other Panthers' running back to have a substantial fantasy impact in 2014.

The rotating, multi-headed backfield monster that head coach Ron Rivera has used in recent seasons has netted decent results – capped by a 12-4 regular season last year - which provides little incentive to change. While the Panthers do figure to stay fairly run-heavy this season, it will most likely be through a committee approach.

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Williams is currently the RB44 in 12-team, PPR drafts. While a 10th-round pick can usually be thrown away without any real loss of equity, players with much greater upside such as Jeremy Hill and Carlos Hyde are being selected near Williams. To be fair, however, our projections do like Williams much more than drafters do.

Williams has proven to be a useful, efficient running back when given the chance, and with Stewart shelved yet again, he could take the starting job and run with it. But his lack of opportunity for touchdowns due to both Newton and Tolbert make him a less appealing option for fantasy purposes.