Addition of Tolbert adds options for offense
The immediate speculation upon the Panthers signing fullback Mike Tolbert was that there were too many backs and not enough carries.
But considering the way the Panthers designed their offense a year ago, there's a way of looking at it that makes perfect sense.
The Panthers overspent to keep free agent running back DeAngelo Williams in 2011 to go with Jonathan Stewart, and created a redundancy by signing tight end Jeremy Shockey and then trading for tight end Greg Olsen. But it was all done to insulate rookie quarterback Cam Newton, to provide as many weapons as possible during his transition to the pro game.
It worked too, as the Panthers made a quantum leap on offense, going from the league's worst to one of the best overnight.
In that light, the 5-9, 243-pound Tolbert gives the Panthers yet another option in the run game, and gives offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski another way to do business.
He ran for more than 1,200 yards and scored 21 touchdowns the previous two seasons for San Diego, before leaving money on the table to come back to his native Southeast.
"Mike is a very versatile player who can do a lot of different things for us," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "He plays fullback, catches the ball well out of the backfield, plays running back, and is an outstanding special teams player.
"It was a good fit and gives us a chance to add another weapon on offense. We are excited about bringing him back to the Carolinas."
Panthers officials have been adamant that Stewart (whose rookie contract expires after the 2012 season) is not on the trade block. There's a fair argument to be made he's the most talented back of the bunch, and would be in line for a payday to match or exceed the five-year, $43 million pact Williams got a year ago.
For now, the intention is to use Tolbert in combination with both Stewart and Williams, as well as plans to keep the incumbent backs on the field together.
Tolbert's background as a blocker and a pass-catcher also makes him an excellent candidate for the H-back role, which frees up the tight ends to do more traditional tight end things. Along those lines, if Tolbert makes any veteran expendable, it could be Shockey, who remains on the free-agent market, since there are people on hand with similar skills with fewer miles on their bodies or injuries in their medical file.
Coupled with Olsen, and the rejuvenated wide receiver Steve Smith, Tolbert creates another layer of options for an offense that continues to evolve. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell continued to learn over the course of the season, and with a tall deep threat in David Gettis coming off injured reserve (ACL tear), the potential in the passing game is there.
Newton impressed teammates and coaches with his ability to learn on the fly, and it seems obvious by the moves made that they're going to keep adjusting to keep opposing defenses off balance in the future.
--Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was one of four passers named in the NFL's report as targets of the Saints bounty system. In two games against the Saints, he was the object of three personal foul penalties, and took numerous hard shots.
--Speaking of bounties, NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp identified Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey as "the snitch."
Shockey vehemently denied those allegations on Twitter and a subsequent ESPN interview, calling Sapp's claims "100 percent false."
He also joked about the situation on Twitter, suggesting "I hear I killed (Jimmy) Hoffa."
--The Panthers are still waiting on a decision from offensive lineman Jason Brown, who visited early in free agency. The Panthers have a vacancy at left guard after releasing veteran Travelle Wharton, and the North Carolina native would slide in nicely. He played his best football in Baltimore under current Panthers line coach John Matsko.
The Panthers, perhaps tired of waiting, signed guard/center Mike Pollak March 22.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"If I'm a running back, if I'm a receiver, if I'm a linebacker, if I'm a D-tackle, you always have to respect that other person's career because they're feeding families just like I'm trying to feed my parents. And if you take those joints, those ligaments away by taking a cheap shot, it's bigger than one, little 'Yes, we took down their starting quarterback.' This quarterback can't even throw no more because you took a late hit on him." - QB Cam Newton, to the Los Angeles Times prior to the bounty sanctions against the New Orleans Saints.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
As much focus as has been placed on fixing their leaky defense, the Panthers are taking serious steps toward repairing the special teams personnel which was just as bad last year.
The Panthers were ranked last in the league in the comprehensive special teams rankings compiled by Dallas Morning News NFL writer Rick Gosselin, and the breakdowns were across the board. They were last in the league in net punting and punts inside the 20, and 30th in both kick return and punt return average.
Fullback Mike Tolbert will complement the offense but will be a core special teamer. The same is true of safety Haruki Nakamura, who will compete for a starting job but be a key signing even if he's a backup on defense.
They've also agreed to a deal with former Minnesota linebacker Kenny Onatolu, who is familiar with special teams coach Brian Murphy from his days there.
Tolbert was tied for San Diego's team lead in special teams tackles last year, while Nakamura was second in Baltimore, and first during the playoffs.
In discussing the addition of Nakamura, general manager Marty Hurney said: "He's also an excellent special teams player, and he plays the game with a lot of passion."