It has been a long, long time since the Carolina Panthers employed an H-back in their base offense. Brad Hoover was often given the moniker, but it was a misnomer as he was almost never used as a true wrinkle in the offense. Sure, he was a short yard option, and caught a few passes out of the backfield- but he could never be compared with a true H-Back.
In one fell swoop the Carolina Panthers now have a plethora of H-Back players. The signing of Mike Tolbert opened up the imagination for what the offense will look like in 2012, but there are two other players who can fill the role in Ben Hartsock and Richie Brockel- both of whom were brought into the fold last year. To this end Hartsock was rarely used, and outside of the now famous 'Annexation of Puerto Rico' we probably wouldn't have heard from Brockel in 2011 either.
There's no doubt Tolbert has the starting job wrapped up, but it wouldn't be surprising if we saw either Hartsock or Brockel make the roster as well. Both players are very solid blockers, with Hartsock having a slight edge in this regard whereas Brockel may be the better short-yardage ball carrier. With the departure of Jeremy Shockey there's a lot of offensive production to be made up. Not only in the yardage he gained through the air, but in his pass protection. Shock was hardly the best blocker, but he was better than both Greg Olsen and Gary Barnidge- both of whom are more akin to tall receivers, than true pass blockers. This opens the door for the H-Backs.
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Last season we saw the Panthers employ scores of double-TE sets with both Shockey and Olsen on the field. This gave Newton a lot of different offensive weapons, and helped create confusion for defense. They had to account for both TEs, and in doing so would often let a WR get free release. While it's possible we could see Barnidge and Olsen fill these roles, there is a risk that in doing so the Panthers are really sacrificing their blocking.
Based on what he know about Mike Tolbert it's likely he will fill the role left by Shockey. Rather than lining up on the edge we'll see him in the backfield more working as a lead blocker for either DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart. However, he has the pass catching ability to split wide when needed. This will likely be the Panthers' base offense with one TE in Olsen, an RB, two receivers and Tolbert. It's a fairly simple look, but it's the flexibility each player has that opens it up. Tolbert can run the ball, catch out of the backfield, line up for basic routes as a TE or lead block on the option play- there are myriad ways he can add to the defense.
In this capacity Gary Barnidge will be present in two-TE sets, but likely on short yardage third down situations with Cam in the shotgun. In this look he will come on the field for Tolbert and open up the center of the field. This will allow either short passes to the TEs, or a run up the gut from a single back set while defenses are holding their linebackers in coverage.
This season will be a litmus test for how the H-Back can work in Chud's Coryell offense. If it works then I expect the Panthers will really scour the 2013 or 2014 draft to find a long term answer at the position. If it produces less than stellar results then it's safe to say the Panthers will regress to the 2011 model of two tight ends. Personally, I hope the H-Back experiment works because it adds one of the easiest wrinkles in football. By simply taking a hybrid RB/TE and playing him in the backfield you create the same amount of confusion someone like Darren Sproles adds to the Saints. The end goal will be to surround Newton with so many weapons that defenses will need to pick their poison on every down, and to this end I can't wait to see what Mike Tolbert and Co. bring to the offense in 2012.