Panthers stuck with RBs Williams, Stewart -- for better or worse

Injuries, age, lagging production and more injuries have kept the Panthers' backfield of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams from consistently realizing their still-promising potential.

Neither DeAngelo Williams (left) nor Jonathan Stewart (right) has rushed for 1,000 yards in the past four seasons. Incredibly, both backs pulled off the feat in 2009.

Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are pretty much three things you can count on: death, taxes and Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart being injured.

Training camp started Friday night and Stewart isn't participating due to a slightly pulled hamstring from two weeks ago. Injuries, both nagging and serious, have been an ongoing issues for Stewart since the day the Panthers drafted him in 2008.

Stewart's latest injury comes at the same time Carolina lost sixth-round draft pick Tyler Gaffney (Stanford) for the season, due to a torn ACL. (Note: The Patriots claimed Gaffney on waivers Monday.)

Thus, the Panthers have only a 31-year-old running back in DeAngelo Williams and more of a fullback type in Mike Tolbert. Though it has been relatively productive, the stable of backs doesn't exactly evoke a lot of confidence from the outside looking in.

However, head coach Ron Rivera didn't seem too concerned about Stewart's absence.

"He had a good OTA and minicamp," Rivera told reporters. "I talked to Jonathan (last Wednesday) when he came in to see (trainer Ryan Vermillion), and it didn't seem or sound as serious as some hamstrings can be."

On multiple occasions, Carolina's running back situation has brought joy and angst to Panthers fans -- usually in the same seasons. Very rarely have fans been able to rely on either Stewart or Williams on an every-game basis.

More often than not, Williams has been known for starting slow when the season gets underway, before gradually building up steam by the second half, where he's been a serious threat. However, his average yards per carry has gone down in three straight years, which routinely happens when a running back hits the, uh, magical age of 30.

Stewart is 27 and a few years ago led the NFL in yards gained after contact. The problem is he's often hampered with injuries.

It started his senior season at Oregon, where he hurt the big toe on his right foot. It progressed from there.

In 2008, Stewart missed every offseason workout after that draft; and during the course of that season, chronic pain surfaced in his left foot.

The following season Stewart rarely, if ever, practiced more than one day a week due to soreness in his Achilles. Following the season, he had surgery to fix any remaining damage.

In 2010, Stewart missed the first 19 days of training camp and wound up missing two games that season due to a concussion.

All was well in 2011, when he played in every game and averaged a robust 5.4 yards per carry while also leading the NFL in yards after contact. But the following two seasons, it was right back to the injuries, with Stewart cumulatively missing 16 games.

In 2012, Stewart hurt both of his ankles and played in only nine games. Last offseason he had surgery on both ankles and didn't return until November. A few weeks later he tore his MCL and missed the remainder of the season.

The worst part for the Panthers: Their hands are essentially tied with Stewart and Williams because of their monstrous contracts.

Stewart is owed more than $18 million in guaranteed money, while Williams has $9.75 million in guarantees. It's hard to imagine both backs with the team in 2015, although the same has been said for each of the past three seasons.

With Gaffney gone, Rivera said the team expects to sign another running back for insurance purposes -- just in case something happens to either Williams or Stewart.

All that does is add another rusher to join Williams, Stewart, Tolbert and second-year back Kenjon Barner on the payroll. And in a league that is continually moving toward reducing the salaries and importance of running backs, the Panthers will have an abundance, though maybe not top quality, at that spot.