Entering the 2013 season, a number of players on the Carolina Panthers‘ roster have to prove themselves, or else fall into obscurity. Steve Smith has to prove that he can still be elite and solidify a Hall of Fame career even at the age of 34. Jon Beason has to prove that he can return to the dominant form that made him into an All-Pro after suffering two major knee injuries. Even Cam Newton has something to prove; that he can mature into the elite quarterback he is capable of being in his critical third year. While each of these players have obstacles to overcome and reputations to redeem, one player has more at stake this season than anyone: DeAngelo Williams.
Williams was recently awarded an extension with the Panthers, a move more based on faith in his potential than his performance the last few years. Williams flashed his potential in 2008 with a remarkable season, piling up over 1,500 rushing yards and 20 total touchdowns with zero fumbles, all while sharing carries with Jonathan Stewart. Since then, however, Williams has had one 1,000 yard season, in 2009, and has only accumulated 1,934 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns in the past three years. Williams needs to prove to the Panthers that their faith was not misplaced, and that he be more than a cog in the Panthers crowded backfield.
Compounding the pressure put on by the new contract is Williams’ age. Williams recently turned 30, a number dreaded by most NFL running backs. Williams’ window of opportunity to redeem his career and validate his first round selection is closing quickly, especially with Jonathan Stewart and Kenjon Barner breathing down his neck. With Cam Newton taking attention away from him with the read-option and Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross anchoring the offensive line along with returning veteran Travelle Wharton, Williams has all the assets necessary to be an elite running back, he just has to make the right decisions.
More than anything, Williams needs to prove that 2008 wasn’t a fluke. He was my pick for first team All-Pro that year, a player I thought more deserving of the selection than Adrian Peterson with his nine fumbles. Though Williams will have some carries taken away from him by Cam Newton, at least he won’t be handcuffed by Jonathan Stewart for at least five games, which should give him a great chance to redeem himself. Without a passing threat outside of Steve Smith and Greg Olsen, the Panthers will have to rely on the run game, which will give Williams the perfect opportunity. But, if Williams can’t return to an elite or semi-elite level — let’s say 1,000 rushing yards and 8 TDs — then Carolina may consider cutting their losses with Williams and clearing some room in their crowded backfield.