NFL Free Agency 2012: Should the Panthers Sign Mike Tolbert?

Tyler HornerCorrespondent IIMarch 18, 2012

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 11:  Running back Mike Tolbert #35 of the San Diego Chargers runs the ball in the endzone for a touchdown during their NFL Game on December 11, 2011 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

After word got out that Mike Tolbert visited the Carolina Panthers on Saturday, rumors are beginning to fly as to what this means for the future of the Panthers' "Double Trouble" backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. 

Stewart is heading into the final year of his rookie contract and although it might seem logical to trade the pounding back in Stewart before he demands a huge contract, Williams is already set to make nearly $40 million over the next four years and dropping that cap hit would open up a lot of options for the Panthers in free agency for the next two years. 

Tolbert is similar to Stewart in that he runs like a bowling ball. He's a durable back as well who consistently plays with a hard-nosed style and infrequently makes mistakes; he cut down his fumbles from five to one last season. 

He doesn't boast a high average yards per carry, but that can be explained by his lack of long speed. He doesn't break away on 80-yard runs that make him look vastly better on the stat sheet. Instead, he picks up the tough yards between the tackles and punishes defenders on a regular basis. 

So, then, the big question isn't whether or not Tolbert could fit in with the Panthers. Rather, the question is to who the Panthers will trade—Williams or Stewart—or if they won't get rid of either just yet. 

My opinion is that the Panthers are looking to sign him to a very small contract and insert him into a fullback role. They were missing that piece in their offense last season largely due to an odd assortment of talent. Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey often lined up as the fullback, but both would be better off remaining outside the tackles. 

Rickie Brockel also lined up at fullback on occasion, but he doesn't have the talent to keep his job over a talented free agent like Tolbert, who would open up a variety of options for Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. And that is exactly what he is about; options, options and more options for this talented group led by Cam Newton. 

Whether or not they will be able to sign Tolbert to the contract that they are looking for is another story, however. He has been relatively productive with the San Diego Chargers and another team—for example, the Pittsburgh Steelers—could very well offer him some playing time at tailback and offer him more money than the Panthers can afford to. 

Trading Williams might be an ideal option though. He had a nice season in 2011, but as he continues closer to the age of 30, those lingering injuries could make a return appearance and the Panthers do not want him to be hitting them with $10 million against the cap when that happens. 

Getting rid of the younger back in Stewart just doesn't seem smart to me. They wouldn't get much in value and he has been a very impressive player for as long as he's been there. He appears just as capable of taking on the starting duties as Williams and could prove to be even better given more carries. 

Time will tell what the Panthers do, but the best decision may just be to stick with what they have; two great running backs that complement each other perfectly.