Fantasy football owners have to deal with plenty of committee backfields across the NFL, and the Carolina Panthers are no different with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams both getting significant playing time and touches and creating a tough situation for owners to navigate on a weekly basis.
The Panthers added Mike Tolbert to their backfield mix via free agency this offseason, but despite his productivity for the San Diego Chargers in 2011 (490 rushing yards, eight touchdowns along with 54 receptions for 433 yards and two touchdowns) he looks likely to settle in at fullback for Carolina with little in the way of fantasy potential outside of being a potential touchdown vulture. That may change if Stewart or Williams, or more likely both, were to suffer significant injuries this year.
So when debating Carolina’s running backs from a fantasy perspective it comes down to Williams and Stewart. Let’s take a look at each guy, and then I’ll make my choice.
Williams signed a big contract last offseason (five years, $43 million-$21 million guaranteed) and followed it up with another productive season with 836 yards and seven touchdowns as he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. But he offered little as a pass catcher with just 16 catches for 135 yards last season, and with just 27 receptions over the past two seasons that is unlikely to change dramatically this season.
Williams was not a significant factor near the goal line for the Panthers last season with just two carries inside the opponent’s five-yard line, and with quarterback Cam Newton the rushing threat he is a significant uptick in that area is unlikely. Five of his seven of his touchdown runs were 20 yards or longer, showing both his big-play explosiveness and skewing his yards per carry average slightly as well.
Williams’ salary and solid level of play guarantees he will not fade into the background in the Panthers’ backfield mix as long as he is healthy. But fantasy owners should not expect to get a consistent workhorse back, as he never had more than 15 carries in a game last season and had less than 40 rushing yards in six of 16 contests.
Stewart had fewer carries (142), rushing yards (761) and rushing touchdowns (four) than Williams last season, but he far exceeded his backfield mate’s production in the passing game with 47 receptions for 413 yards and one touchdown. Stewart also played more snaps than Williams in 2011, which speaks to his versatility and likely continued role as a part of the Panthers’ passing game. But he had just five games with double-digit carries all season, making him hard to rely on as a weekly starting option.
The signing of Tolbert may take away some of Stewart’s opportunities as a pass catcher and around the goal line, but not likely enough to dampen his fantasy value in any significant way. His touchdown total may still not be great in 2012, but fantasy owners in yardage-heavy or PPR leagues can find a lot to like here compared to similarly ranked players.
Given how the Carolina backfield situation looks likely to pan out, fantasy owners should not draft Williams or Stewart as anything more than a RB3 regardless of league format. Stewart has more appeal in PPR leagues since he offers much greater production in terms of catches and yards, and Williams should be bumped down slightly on cheat sheets in that format right now. It’s fair to say Newton will not repeat his 14 rushing touchdowns from last year, so there should be more opportunities in the red zone to go around for the entire Panthers’ offense and Stewart and Williams may benefit some in that regard.
It looks certain to take an injury to the other for Williams or Stewart to approach RB1-level fantasy production this year, but all things considered Stewart offers more in terms of overall skills and it’s worth mentioning he is entering the final year of his contract and should be plenty motivated to produce when he gets the opportunity.