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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Soon to be stars: Jonathan Stewart

By Matt Williamson

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson looks at NFC South players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

When evaluating running backs across the league, I have a hard time finding a back -- outside of Adrian Peterson -- who is more physically gifted than Jonathan Stewart.

Stewart has displayed flashes of greatness and appears poised to join the elite at his position in 2011. His combination of power, speed, elusiveness, balance and vision is about as good as it gets, and Stewart can be effective inside or on the perimeter.

It’s worth noting that I’m writing this with the assumption that fellow running back DeAngelo Williams, a potential restricted free agent, will be playing elsewhere this season. There is talk that Carolina would like to bring Williams back, but it seems more likely the Panthers will funnel their resources toward defensive end Charles Johnson or a receiving weapon like Zach Miller, Malcolm Floyd or Sidney Rice.

And while the Panthers have more than their fair share of problems on offense, adding mobile quarterback Cam Newton could help the running game. Consider how much more dangerous Tennessee’s Chris Johnson was when Vince Young was his quarterback. Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy certainly benefited from having Michael Vick in the same backfield.

The threat of a running quarterback makes it risky for edge defenders to crash down on inside runs because they have to respect the quarterback’s ability to get to the outside. And with Newton likely to start immediately as a rookie, dump-off passes to Stewart, who has proven to be an excellent receiver out of the backfield, should be a fixture in Carolina’s offense.

Also working in Stewart’s favor is an offensive line that will welcome back right tackle Jeff Otah, who missed all of 2010 with knee and shoulder injuries. Players like Geoff Schwartz and Ryan Kalil stepped up in Otah’s absence, and Jordan Gross is an excellent all-around left tackle, so getting Otah back into the equation should pay off big time for a group that held its own last season despite Carolina’s lack of a passing threat.

Mike Goodson also shows some promise at running back and should make some noise this season as a complementary back, but Stewart has the ability to be a bell-cow back who can pound on defenses. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season in a one-dimensional offense and finished strong after Williams went down for the year with a foot injury.

Overall, Stewart’s youth (24 years old), physical tools and the added pieces to the offense give him a chance to break out in a big way.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.