Jonathan Stewart has played for the Carolina Panthers since 2008, rushing for nearly 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
But Monday was the first time he’d been in the interview room at Bank of America Stadium to address the media.
After sharing the spotlight and the ball with DeAngelo Williams his first seven years, Stewart enters the offseason program as the Panthers’ featured back for the first time in his career.
Given how close Williams and Stewart were on and off the field, it will take some getting used to.
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“It’s going to be weird,” Stewart said on the first day of offseason workouts. “But it’s part of the business.”
Williams was the more gregarious half of the Double Trouble backfield tandem formed after Stewart arrived as a first-round draft choice from Oregon. Stewart never seemed thrilled about talking to reporters, especially on the topic of his health after two injury-plagued seasons in 2012-2013.
But after an offseason in which he was able to work out rather than rehab, Williams stayed healthy for most of 2014 and rushed for 809 yards, his most since a 1,133-yard season in 2009.
His production likely played a part in Williams’ departure, although the 10 games the 31-year-old Williams missed because of injuries last season didn’t help, either. Another contributing factor was the $2 million the Panthers saved by designating their all-time rushing leader as a post-June 1 cut.
Stewart, 28, says although players understand that teammates come and go every season, it doesn’t make it any easier.
“When things like that happen,” he said, “there’s really no easy format to deal with it.”
Stewart remains in close contact with Williams, who signed a two-year deal with Pittsburgh last month. The two texted Monday morning as voluntary workouts began across the league.
Stewart says he feels “pretty good” after an offseason routine that included a lot of yoga and stretching, which he credits with helping him stay healthy last season. Stewart still does explosion-type drills, but understands the importance of “staying limber at the same time.”
Stewart says he’s been working out and training as though he’ll be the No. 1 back, which was his mindset even when Williams was around.
But Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last month he wants to stick with a two-back approach, and the team has met with some of the top running backs in the draft, including former Georgia tailback Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.
Gurley, the Tarboro native who is coming off ACL surgery in November, had his first-round status solidified last week when his medical recheck revealed no issues with his knee.
Gordon, whose 2,587 rushing yards in 2014 were second all-time behind Barry Sanders’ 2,628, also is considered a lock for the first round, despite a couple of areas that need refining.
“The only issue with Gordon is he has to keep improving as a receiver, which he’s made strides there, and he’s got to be better with ball security,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said during a conference call. “His running skills are phenomenal and his pass-blocking is underrated. He’ll get his nose dirty there.”
Stewart says he has no problem with the Panthers taking a running back – they’ve also visited with Indiana’s Tevin Coleman – if it makes the team better.
“I’m used to sharing the backfield,” he said.
But this season he won’t be sharing it with Williams, whom Stewart called his “locker buddy” of seven years.
“Honestly, I just want to win games,” Stewart said. “I’ve been on teams here where we haven’t won games. I’ve been on teams where we’ve won a lot of games, and I’ve been on teams where we went through some things and we reaped the benefit.
“Whatever that plan is, whether it’s me getting a bulk load of carries or a minimum or whatever the game plan is for that week, that’s what I’ll be down for.”
If he stays healthy and replicates his success from last season, Stewart should be down for more visits to the interview room, as well.
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