Free Agency

Source: RB Mike Tolbert visiting Carolina Panthers this weekend | CharlotteObserver.com

Source: RB Mike Tolbert visiting Carolina Panthers this weekend | CharlotteObserver.com & The Charlotte Observer Newspaper.

Free agent running back Mike Tolbert is visiting the Carolina Panthers this weekend, an NFL source said Saturday.

Tolbert, 26, who played four seasons in San Diego, visited the Kansas City Chiefs last week and also has drawn interest from San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

Joel Turner, Tolbert’s agent, said Tolbert is visiting a team this weekend, but would not confirm it is the Panthers.

Signing Tolbert would create a crowded backfield for the Panthers and heighten speculation DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart could be on the trading block.

Stewart would seem to be more attractive to interested teams because he is entering the final year of his contract and has a cap figure of just more than $3 million. Williams received a 5-year, $43 million extension last summer and will count $8.7 million against the cap this year.

With the arrival of quarterback Cam Newton, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Williams and Stewart – the so-called “Double Trouble” tandem – both saw their carries drop in 2011. Stewart averaged fewer than nine rushes a game – the lowest average of his career – while Williams’ 11.1 rushing attempts were his fewest since 2007.

Newton attempted 517 passes last season and finished with a rookie-record 4,051 passing yards. He also had 126 rushes – just 16 fewer than Stewart.

Mike Goodson, the Panthers’ No. 3 tailback, had a productive 2010 season before falling out of favor with Ron Rivera and his first-year staff last season.

Rivera and Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski came to Charlotte from San Diego and are familiar with Tolbert, who led the Chargers with 735 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010.

The 5-9, 243-pound Tolbert played behind 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Mathews last season, but was one of the Chargers’ top special teams players. The Panthers are looking to upgrade their special teams after ranking near the bottom in most special teams categories in 2011.

The Panthers’ first two free agent additions – former Baltimore safety Haruki Nakamura and ex-Minnesota linebacker Kenny Onatolu – both have extensive special teams experience.

Tolbert, a native of Douglasville, Ga., was undrafted coming out of Coastal Carolina in 2008.

WHARTON A BENGAL: Veteran guard Travelle Wharton signed a free agent deal with Cincinnati on Saturday, four days after the Panthers released him. Wharton, 30, agreed to a 3-year deal worth a reported $10 million.

Wharton, whose 99 starts are the second most by an offensive lineman in Panthers’ history, was due to make $5.7 million in base salary in Carolina this year, with a cap figure of $7.6 million. Cutting Wharton created $3.8 million in cap space for the Panthers.

Wharton told the Cincinnati Enquirer his release after eight seasons in Charlotte caught him off guard.

“I wasn’t expecting it all. I thought I was going to finish in Carolina and it would be it. But I’ve seen things done before in the league,” Wharton said. “Carolina, though, treated me well and is a first-class organization. But now it’s time to come to the Bengals.”

Wharton used Twitter to thank the Panthers’ organization and fan base for “8 great years.”

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