Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera made it clear Thursday that the decision to cut veteran running back Jonathan Stewart was not easy for him.
But he doesn’t have much time to mourn. Rivera and his staff now must decide how to replace Stewart, who was released Wednesday in a cost-cutting move that created almost $4 million in salary cap room.
Stewart, who turns 31 this month, had a power-run style that made him a face of the franchise for 10 seasons. But replacing him might not necessarily mean getting another traditional workhorse back.
Head coach Ron Rivera indicated at the NFL scouting combine on Thursday that he’d like to fill Stewart’s slot with a back with a dynamic skill set to work in tandem with pass-catching back Christian McCaffrey.
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“I wouldn’t say you need to have a guy like Jonathan,” Rivera said. “You go back and look at what (new offensive coordinator Norv Turner) did with LaDainian (Tomlinson), you look at Frank Gore when he was in San Francisco. You know, he’s had dynamic guys that are multifaceted. That run the ball inside, outside, catch the ball well and pass-protect.
“That’s what you’re really looking for is that type of guy.”
Carolina has an option already on its roster: Cameron Artis-Payne, a fifth-round draft pick in 2015.
“He is definitely in the competition,” said general manager Marty Hurney, in an exclusive interview with the Observer on Thursday.
“I think you want to see a guy like CAP get the ball you know, 12, 15, 18 times and see how it goes. Because running backs like that want the ball. Downhill runners want the ball and get better with carries.”
But the breadth of Artis-Payne’s ability, while promising, is unproven. He has had just 99 carries for 422 yards and four touchdowns in his three seasons in Carolina, and seven catches for 71 yards.
The 2018 NFL draft is teeming with the kind of talent Rivera described.
Availability into the later rounds helps Carolina, whose other pressing needs include receiver, edge rusher, guard and safety. The Panthers are helped further by having Artis-Payne already on the roster.
But the position needs depth should Artis-Payne step into a starting role, so a mid-to-late round pick seems more viable than an early one.
That doesn’t mean the Panthers will lose out if they miss on one of the top names while filling another need. Hurney emphasized the need of complementary skill sets across the offense, so it is more important for a back to fit the scheme than necessarily be the most dazzling prospect.
Rivera said he is in the process of breaking down running back tape.
“There are several really good-looking backs in this draft,” he said. “It’s really about the guy who will best fit what you want. ... I’m anxious to watch that group, because I think it’s a pretty dynamic group from top to bottom. ... I do think there is a guy who can potentially help us.”
Sony Michel (Georgia)
Early projections: Rounds 2-3
Michel’s shiftiness as a runner and pass-catcher has often drawn comparisons to NFL Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara, and his response to them Thursday was refreshing: It is an honor to be compared to Kamara, “but he’s in the NFL and I still have to earn it.”
Michel added that he wants to play fast, and is especially passionate about his ability in pass protection. His relaxed and honest demeanor despite the high pressure of the week will likely impress evaluators. He also confirmed that he met with the Panthers’ staff.
He shared carries with Nick Chubb while at Georgia, so has experience in a tandem.
Nick Chubb (Georgia)
Early projections: Round 3
Chubb is a solid runner who had 1,345 rushing yards in 2017. His balance and lower-body strength stand out, and he worked last season to improve his ability as a pass-catcher. His style seems very similar to Artis-Payne’s.
Kalen Ballage (Arizona State)
Early projections: Rounds 4-5
Ballage is 6-2 and 228 pounds, and possesses ability as a downhill runner who could also play tight end or receiver. He’s also a rising name after displaying his abilities as a pass-catcher at the Senior Bowl, and the kind of versatile player the Panthers have favored in recent drafts.
His size and skill set are especially interesting to consider as a complement to McCaffrey’s.
Ballage said he models his game after that of Arizona running back David Johnson, and confirmed that he will be doing a receiver workout at his Pro Day later this month.
Derrius Guice (LSU)
Early projections: 1-2 (may not be viable for the Panthers at No. 24)
Guice is a talent who may drop to a rational spot for Carolina if teams are worried about his injury history. At 5-11 and 212 pounds, he’s built a lot like Artis-Payne, and is a physical runner who loosened up defensive fronts for LSU as a feature back when star Leonard Fournette was hurt in 2016.
He also had the best quote of the day for NFL staffs evaluating him: “If you don’t draft me, I’m going to give your defense hell.”
Chase Edmonds (Fordham)
Early projections: 6 - Undrafted free agent
At 5-9 and 210 pounds, Edmonds is shorter than what Carolina may want. In his first three seasons at Fordham, Edmonds was one of the best all-around running backs in the country with 5,285 yards and 62 touchdowns, with 776 receiving yards. An ankle injury stalled his production his senior season. Edmonds has great balance and is both electric and smooth as a runner and pass-catcher, serving as the blueprint for former Fordham and Penn State coach Joe Moorhead when he began planning his scheme for this year’s top prospect, Saquon Barkley.
Edmonds is comfortable with a full route tree and said he’ll participate in receiving drills during the combine. He’s an intriguing option as the Panthers look to increase their speed, and actually may be a viable replacement for Fozzy Whittaker.