One of the more interesting decisions Mike Shula has to make this fall is deciding which of his stellar RBs will start. 6th year RB Jonathan Stewart had backed up Williams his first four seasons but then surprisingly got the start week 1 last season. He then proceeded to have his worst year as a Panther, starting only 6 games while averaging 3.6 yds per carry. An early ankle injury kept him out of 2 of the Panthers first 3 games and then caused him to miss the last five games as well.
Neither RB faired very well early in the season but Williams did end on a strong note. He averaged over a 100 yds per game those last 5 games he started, admittedly helped by a 200 performance in week 17 against the Saints. So was it a change in scheme that helped Williams or an offensive line that was finally starting to gel? That is the question for Mike Shula to figure the best answer.
I really have no idea which way Shula will go with the starter so I'm going with what I would do if I were in his shoes. I would start the veteran Williams and let the suddenly injury prone Stewart start the season on limited carries until his strength returns. Plus I've always thought it better to start the faster, shiftier guy and then bring in the hammer (Stewart) later in the game when the defense is tiring.
Probability of Starting: 80%
As I stated above Stewart has had a gimpy ankle he needs to get back to strength and being a power runner it's wise to let him come along slowly. Hence I think Shula has cause enough to sit Stewart early. Now he could very well disagree with me and given he was the week 1 starter last year, if he has a strong preseason he could be the starter again. Until we see him in live action it's hard to be very positive of anything.
Probability of Starting: 20%
Poole had 15 touches in 2 preseason games last season before landing on IR after injuring his ribs. In those 15 touches though he looked pretty darn good so I think he the edge on Armond Smith for a final RB roster spot, if there is a 3rd RB spot that is. The only problem is rookie Kenjon Barner might have the edge being a draft pick.
Probability of Making the Roster: 5% Probability of Making the Practice Squad: 80%
Smith was signed off the practice squad with 4 games left last season. He got a couple carries (0 yds) and returned a few kick offs too. He's a smaller guy which means he has a similar skill set to Barner reducing his chances even further. Expect to see a lot of Smith and Poole this preseason as the Panthers give their starting RBs a light tune up.
Probability of Making the Roster: 5% Probability of Making the Practice Squad: 50%
The 6th round selection Barner muddies the water at RB simply because he is not a lock to be the Panthers kick returner with Ted Ginn on the roster. The logic seems to be he is a lock to be the 3rd RB but given the depth at the position he could end up on the PS. That seems a bit risky so as long as he shows he can catch the ball out of the backfield and not make mistakes he should make the 53.
Probability of Making the Roster: 80%
Tolbert is listed as a fullback but I mention him here because the Panthers would not hesitate to use him as a RB in certain packages or as an in-game injury replacement. Yet I don't think he takes up a RB slot even with the flexibility he brings.
RB is one of the Panthers deepest position provided every returns healthy. They have a nice mix in running styles as well with the power running in Stewart, Tolbert and Poole and the finesse, speedy guys in Williams, Smith and Barner. Regardless of whether Williams or Stewart starts we can still expect a platoon split with the carries between the two like we have seen in the past, at least to begin the season. With the Panthers vowing to emphasize the run more this should be a fun group of guys to watch and cheer in September.