Carolina Panthers Monday Morning Optimist- Mike Tolbert Edition

Big, strong, and hard to bring down-- Mike Tolbert will pay immediate dividends in 2012. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Happy Monday Panthers faithful and welcome to the next installment of our off-season MMO where we get prepped for Spartanburg, and the season beyond. When Mike Tolbert joined the Carolina Panthers his addition was one of both excitement, and trepidation. Obviously fans were thrilled to add another weapon to the already vaunted Panthers offense, and a do-everything FB like Mike Tolbert was one of the 2011 team's missing pieces. However, there was also a lot of hesitation as we wondered if Tolbert's signing foreshadowed Jonathan Stewart's contract situation. Several months later we're still unclear what J-Stew's future is with the Carolina Panthers, but worrying about it has been put on the back-burner; obviously the Panthers want him to stay, but they have contingencies built in to Tolbert's deal if need be.

For now the focus is on what Mike Tolbert will bring to the Carolina Panthers in 2012, and to this end the answer is both simple, and varied -- versatility. The 2011 offense was based around a stellar passing game, and two amazing running backs. Tolbert blurs the line between these two elements, and could very well be the final piece to the Panthers' offensive puzzle that takes an excellent offence, and makes them elite.

More after the jump

Last season Jonathan Stewart became the Panthers 'do everything' running back. While DeAngelo Williams was still used as the workhorse, it was Stewart that became the more effective of the two RBs, especially when you factor in his ability as a receiver. In 2011 he amassed 413 yards on 47 receptions, and was one of the organization's leading receivers with Cam Newton at the helm.

Enter Mike Tolbert who was every bit as important to Philip Rivers as Stewart was to Newton. With the departure of Darren Sproles via free agency, Tolbert was asked to fill a bigger role, especially as a receiver out of the backfield. He finished 2011 with 433 yards receiving on 54 catches. If you're keeping count this means that in acquiring Mike Tolbert the Panthers essentially added a second Jonathan Stewart-- at least as a receiver.

As a true running back Tolbert is no slouch either. In 2010 he was responsible for far more carries filling in for the injured Ryan Matthews, but when asked last season he was equally effective. In his one start Tolbert totaled 83 yards on the ground, adding another 59 yards receiving. Herein lies the inherent value in Mike Tolbert -- he's there when needed. Over the last few years the Carolina Panthers have become accustomed to dealing with injuries, and the RB position is no exception. In past years the Panthers would be forced to limp along with only one RB in a clearly two RB system, whereas now Tolbert can easily fill the role and move over to support in case of injury.

Injuries are an outlier though, and week-to-week the Panthers will be utilizing Tolbert as a true H-back. While he only stands 5'9", his 243 lb frame makes it very difficult to find a good match-up for Tolbert, especially when he gets a head of steam. Make no mistake, he's not going to be going over the middle like Jeremy Shockey did in 2011, but he will be able to lineup at tight end on some downs, fill the typical FB role on others, and even become a devastating goal line RB when needed (he had 8 rushing TDs last year, most of which came in short yardage situations).

To pigeonhole Tolbert in one role would be to sell him short, and as such it's best to look at his role as the Panthers Swiss Army Knife for 2012. His primary role will be as a receiver, but expect Chud to use him all over the field to create schematic confusion. There's no good way to deal with him as a runner, and when coupled with his ability as a receiver it should make the Panthers' option plays more effective than they were in 2011 (if that's possible).

7% of fans said it was the addition of Mike Tolbert they were most excited to see in 2012, but we should all look forward to see what a creative offensive mind like Rob Chudzinski has planned for a familiar face, in a brand new venue.

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