Panthers position preview: Running Back

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers continue to swim against the tide by having multiple highly-paid running backs on the roster, now it's time to see the returns.

The concept of "faith" is a tricky one. There's religious faith or belief in another person, then there's faith in a team -- which can be tricky. It's this small word that defines the Panthers' running back position in 2014, one that could either let fans down once again or be the organization's biggest boon.

Dave Gettleman and Marty Hurmey came from very different football backgrounds but they share some common ground, both firmly believe in running the football. During Hurney's time the team selected two first-round rushers in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, both of whom are with the team and both have shown legitimate top-flight talent when healthy. Meanwhile Gettleman has surprisingly devoted two picks in two years to the position, albeit they're late-round investments.

Having Mike Shula as offensive coordinator continues this way of thinking. He's firmly couched in a belief that ball control and time management win games, leaning on the ground game to set up everything else. At times this has worked, others it's fallen flat -- all the while Cam Newton has injected himself into the running game to be every bit as important as the running backs on the roster.

We once again find ourselves in the a familiar position. The Panthers can be one of the league's best ground attacks if players remain healthy, but that's a huge if.

DeAngelo Williams

The 31-year-old running back continues to push against aging and proved to be an excellent option in 2013. Williams got more touches than the team would have liked due to a season-ending injury to Stewart, but he rewarded them with over 800 yards rushing.

It's easy to look at the raw totals and be convinced he's the same player he's always been, but we saw a serious drop in effectiveness last season. Williams 4.2 yards-per-carry was his worst result since an injury-shortened 2010 campaign and three fumbles tied a career-high for the normally sure-handed running back.

When a back hits 30 he becomes a time bomb, okay that's over-evocative imagery but the past has proven that there's no telling when a rusher can fall off the cliff due to age. It's common to see wide receivers slow down or tight ends reduce their role, but time and  time again we see a running back go from effective to nothing in a single season.

There's no indication this will happen to Williams in 2014, but of course there never is. He remains the team's most-reliable running back and it's hard to imagine any other result than him starting for the Panthers once again.

Chance of starting: 100%, Chance of making the roster: 100%

Jonathan Stewart

Sometimes it's time that catches up with a player, occasionally it's delayed injuries -- Stewart is a lesson in the latter.

At this point it's hard to really know how healthy Stewart has ever been since he was selected in 2008. Playing the role of rotational running back largely kept him off the injury radar only to appear like a blip every year in training camp where everyday usage saw him break down.

Unlike past seasons this really feels like the first time we'll see a completely healthy Jonathan Stewart (maybe). His offseason surgery has positioned him for a comeback and early reports indicate that he's looking and feeling better than every. Perhaps this is finally the time the organization can cash in on their significant investment in the 27-year-old.

There's no reason to doubt he has the mettle to bounce back, now it's all about whether his body will hold up. This could be the return of the one-two punch the Panthers hoped for, but saying so with any certainty is a lesson in foolishness.

Chance of starting: 0%, Chance of making the roster: 100%

Kenjon Barner

This is where the running back position gets fascinating. It's interesting to see that in selecting two backs in 2013 and 2014 that Gettleman looked at finding poor-man's versions of Williams and Stewart. Kenjon Barner represents the former and there's no telling what he can contribute in 2014.

Expectations were high for the shifty running back from Oregon, but there was very little trust from the offensive coaching staff. It didn't matter that Stewart was injured and the team had a need, they decided to over-use Williams for 200-plus touches than lean on the rookie.

Barner's on-field performance justified this move, touching the ball eight times for a grand total of 18 yards -- with a fumble to boot.

It was a disappointing rookie season but there's still promise. No, Barner may never be a true part of a "three-headed-monster," but he can contribute -- especially on special teams. That could be his saving grace on retaining a roster spot this season.

Chance of starting: 0%, Chance of making the roster: 60%

Tyler Gaffney

Meet the new guy. Arguably one of the most-surprising picks by Carolina in the 2014 draft was the move to secure yet another running back to add to the stable.

Gaffney was not highly-rated by scouts entering the draft, but Gettleman liked what he saw from the Stanford running back. He's a strong North-South runner who can get between the tackles and take some pressure off Mike Tolbert on third down.

Right now it's hard to see where he fits in on the depth chart. Yes he's a rookie so the chance of an outright cut is unlikely, but even with special teams roles it's hard to see how the team keeps four running backs on the roster. Unless Gaffney shines in training camp and preseason it's easy to see the Panthers trying to stash him on the practice squad to give him a year of seasoning.

Chance of starting: 0%, Chance of making the roster: 40%

A quick note on Mike Tolbert...

He's awesome

Tolbertlol_medium_medium

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