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North Carolina, come on and raise up, take your DeAngelo Williams shirts off, spin it around your head and then toss them in the closet just in case Williams ends up coming back to Carolina in the twilight of his career. After you're done putting them in a dark space, grab a Jonathan Stewart shirt because this is one of the best seasons to draft the veteran Carolina Panthers running back to your fantasy team.
When looking for value at running back, there are always places to find good RB2-level players that punch the clock week-in and week-out to give you the blue-collar production. These guys aren't going to get promoted to the CEO of your company anytime soon, but what they do is valuable none the less. They aren't the reason you win, but they're not the reason you lose either. Based on his performance last season and a few other variables, Stewart has the potential to be a solid, consistent RB2 in 2015.
Where he can still win
Stewart, who is entering his 8th season with the Panthers, ushered in a comeback of sorts in 2014. His 175 carries were the most he's had since 2010. His 4.6 yards per carry average marked his best since 2011 and he even added a 69-yard run which served as the longest of his career. At 28 years old, his battery is more green than red and he still possesses many of the athletic gifts that he came into the league with back in 2008.
Stewart still shows good burst when getting up to the line of scrimmage after taking the handoff and has always possessed the vision required to read inside blocks. His lateral jump cuts are still very good which allow him to separate from the defense and although he's not the best when trying to beat defenders to the edge, he can still beat slower defenders with his straight line speed off tackle.
Where he excels most is on inside runs. Stewart has the size to knock defenders backward upon contact, keeps his feet moving even if it's in another direction after the hit and loves to employ the spin move to shed tackles. In fact, on one of his best touchdown runs of 2014, you'll see him spin out of two tackles all while keeping his feet moving. He's also a fundamentally sound pass blocker, which keeps him in on valuable third downs.
Stewart's style of running doesn't lend itself to durability. He creates yardage through contact by using size, churning legs and thick frame to break arm tackles. It's no wonder his ground and pound style caused him to miss more than half a season in 2013 and seven games in 2012. But there's still reason for optimism regarding Stewart as a high-end RB2 this season.
He's now the guy
Longtime Panther DeAngelo Williams has departed for Pittsburgh, leaving Stewart as the lone feature back for the first time in his career. Stewart's biggest workload came in 2009 with Carolina. With a career-high 221 attempts that season, Stewart rushed for 1,133 yards, 10 touchdowns and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. While it's unlikely Stewart given the ball that many times in 2015, it's not impossible that he sees close to 200 carries. When you extrapolate his yards per carry with his potential attempts, you're looking at a potential 1,000-yard season for Stewart.
It's not like there's anybody behind him that's really clamoring for carries either. The backfield of Carolina currently consists of Fozzy Whittaker, Jordan Todman, and Auburn rookie Cameron Artis-Payne. Whittaker flashed some potential at times last season after struggling with Cleveland as a rookie. He's a bit more of a lateral shaker than Stewart, a guy who can occasionally get past the defense in the open field, something Stewart has lost the ability to do entirely at this point in his career.
Of the remaining players, fifth-round pick Artis-Payne is likely the only Carolina RB to see time as a starter if Stewart gets injured. Artis-Payne led the SEC in rushing last season and the 5'11, 209 lb back is already 25 years old. Like Stewart, Artis-Payne isn't overly flashy either and he instead wins with his competitiveness. While Artis-Payne definitely has potential, he'll likely only see significant carries if Stewart sees a severe drop in production.
The other problem with drafting Stewart is you might see some dropoff in the touchdown category. The Panthers are known for using Cam Newton around the goal line but that might change with so much money now invested in their quarterback. The Panthers will want to preserve Newton as much as possible, so goal line rushes might be fewer and far between in 2015.
Down with his ADP
According to fantasypros.com, Stewart is being drafted as an RB21, putting him barely inside RB2 value. Other running backs going in similar spots include Andre Ellington, Latavius Murray and Todd Gurley. Murray and Gurley both have question marks since one is playing on a bad Oakland offense with an unproven quarterback while the other is coming off ACL surgery and is expected to be eased into the fold. Ellington, who we've mentioned earlier as a probable injury risk, is probably the best option other than Stewart out of those three.
You could certainly talk somebody into drafting Ellington given the improvements made along the Cardinals' offensive line and also the return of Carson Palmer. Still, Ellington's injury woes have been a constant problem throughout his early NFL career.
Even when Ellington played last season, he lost a good deal of explosiveness due to a foot injury. While he's healthy now, Ellington also struggles as an inside runner due to his smaller frame and lack of agility when cutting up field, both skills that Stewart excels at. When it comes to Stewart vs. Ellington at a similar ADP, we would rather have Stewart due to his steadiness and proven ability to run consistently between the tackles.
Stewart's own health
You could definitely argue Stewart's injury rap sheet is a cause for concern. He tore his MCL twice between 2013 and 2014 which kept him sidelined for a total of six games. He also had ankle surgery in the 2013 offseason which kept him out for the team's season opener. Given his age at 28 years old in combination to the bigger role he will see in 2015, an injury is definitely not out of the question and perhaps even likely. Because of this, we urge you to draft rookie Artis-Payne as a handcuff if you end up drafting Stewart.
Still, Stewart's workload has been relatively light over the last three seasons, making him a bit younger for his age. From 2012-13, he only carried the ball 141 times, so he's got less wear and tear than many think. His last two injuries haven't required any major surgery and he's coming off a resurgent 2014 season despite missing three games. If there was any year to draft Stewart, it's 2015.
The Panthers offensive line
Carolina struggled to get consistent blocking in 2014 and finished 22nd overall according to Pro Football Focus. Their pass blocking fared worse as they came in at 27th overall with their run blocking faring better at 15th overall.
The Panthers offensive line has since been revamped, with Kalil and right guard Trai Turner the full-time starters coming back from last season. They replaced struggling left tackle Byron Bell with another struggling tackle in Michael Oher. Oher gave up 93 combined pressures in 27 starts over the past two seasons, which is not what you want out of your most important pass blocker. Oher will have to improve if he excepts to keep his job given the team's $103.8 million investment at the quarterback position. You just can't give up that many sacks.
The team added some better pieces late last season with the additions of Andrew Norwell at left guard and Mike Remmers at right tackle. A three-year player out of Oregon State that was signed by the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Remmers played in all five of the Panthers remaining games including their two playoff games.
Norwell was signed by the Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and cracked the starting lineup by Week 7 and the results were eye opening. Stewart rushed for over 100 yards twice in the last four games of the season, including a 155-yard effort against the New Orleans Saints where he averaged a whopping 7.8 yards per carry. With Norwell back, the rushing offense in Carolina appears in good hands.
Stewart comes with some injury risk, but he's finally the feature back and the Panthers will look to use him as the bell cow for the foreseeable future. He also still has the talent to play at the NFL level and the offensive line has improved with several key additions in the later stages of 2014. He's a rock solid RB2 in 2015 with potential to approach 1,000 yards rushing.