We are just under a year away from the Carolina Panthers needing to make the hardest decision of Ron Rivera's career as head coach. On the surface it seems like a simple decision-- obviously you keep Jonathan Stewart. After all, he's the younger of the Panthers two stellar RBs, he's a class act off the field, and by all accounts he wants to remain a member of the organization. Already we are seeing a trend where fans are equating Stewart's outward gesture that he wants to stay, as being tantamount to a contract being done. The reality is that the news J-Stew wants to stay is nice, but it's kind of a non-story. There has been no evidence that Stewart is unhappy, and no evidence on the Panthers part that they want to lose the veteran RB, but it's here where desire and reality collide.
Like all contract situations it will come down to money. The natural proclivity fans have is to say "He wants to be here, so he'll give us a sweetheart deal", but what we see more often than no is that this isn't the case. DeAngelo Williams, Jon Beason, and Ryan Kalil hardly settled fo less, and why should they? They're elite players at their position, and were given fair market value in compensation. While it might be convenient to diffuse a discussion with "He'll sign for less" it's not really apt to hang your hat on that line of thinking.
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What makes the decision on Stewart so important, and why it's the hardest decision Ron Rivera will make is that it's forcing the hand of the coaching staff to make their intents clear on the future of the offense. It's simply not posible to pay two elite receivers, two elite running backs, retain an elite offensive line, and keep money in reserve to sign your elite quarterback, who happens to be poised for the biggest pay raise in NFL history due to the pay-scale he's under.
As such, unless a surprise element is introduced into the equation (like, say, DeAngelo restructuring and taking a pay cut) it's going to be time very quickly for the Panthers to decide whether they're going to be an elite running team, an elite passing team, or they're going to try and retain balance. Thus far it seems like the plan is to be balanced, but that requires a very different personnel grouping than skewing towards the elite in either the passing or running game.
For an elite passing game the plan would be to pair Steve Smith with a second elite wide receiver, and using Greg Olsen to round out the group. At the RB position they would utilize one solid back, but outside of that player we'd likely see the position populated with cheap backup options.
In planning an elite running game we'd see a continuation of John Fox's plan in Carolina. Retaining two elite RBs become paramount, while the 2nd and 3rd WR spots fall on the wayside. Steve Smith would continue to be leaned on as 'the guy', and they'd throw rookies, and promising value options, but there wouldn't be a necessity for an elite player.
Finally, if the Panthers hope to be as balanced as they can then they need to find a solid 700-900 yard receiver to pair with Steve Smith, who I think Brandon LaFell can be. At the RB spot it neccesitates one player being paid elite money, while another on a far lesser contract who can still contribute. To this end the Panthers would need a 'Brandon LaFell' type guy at RB-- a third, or forth round RB with ability, but not a huge price tag.
Unless we see a scenario where Hurney works his magic and gets the cap situation creatively solved it's not in the organization's best interest to pay two elite RBs huge money right now. My sense of the situation is that the Panthers are living on borrowed time contractually-- they have to make moves now, and milk them for everything they're worth before Cam Newton's contract situation drops on them like a hammer. When it comes time to be paying a QB elite money they wont have the luxury of mulling over paying two elite RBs, because there simply wont be the cap space. Possibly the most shrewd move would be to sign Stewart for market value, and set the Panthers up to draft a backup RB in 2-3 years. Then, just as DeAngelo Williams is sailing off into the sunset we can roll a new RB into the fold, free up cap room, and help facilitate Newton's extension.
For now, however, Ron Rivera and the Panthers front office will need to make a decision on the immediate path of their offense for the next 4-5 years. Signing Stewart is an admission that they don't plan to find an elite receiver, and are putting their eggs into the proverbial baskets of Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. By extension, if they decide to part ways with J-Stew we can expect to see a big play for a receiver in the near future, either through free agency or trade. It's an interesting time for the Carolina Panthers, and a good problem to have, because it means there's more talent than they know how to handle, a luxury not many teams have.