Free Agency

Now a Carolina Panther, RB Mike Tolbert ‘coming home’ | CharlotteObserver.com

Now a Carolina Panther, RB Mike Tolbert ‘coming home’ | CharlotteObserver.com & The Charlotte Observer Newspaper.

The Carolina Panthers’ “Double Trouble” running back tandem has become the “Triple Threat.”

Free agent running back Mike Tolbert signed a 4-year contract with the Panthers on Monday, joining a crowded backfield that featured DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart the past four seasons.

Tolbert, a 5-foot-9, 243-pounder, was San Diego’s leading rusher in 2010 when he ran for 735 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the Panthers say they plan to use him as a fullback and have no intention of trading Stewart, who is entering the final year of his contract, or Williams, who signed a 5-year, $43 million extension last summer.

Joel Turner, Tolbert’s agent, said Tolbert’s deal includes an option bonus for the final two years of the contract that must be exercised next year. The inclusion of the option clause gives the Panthers insurance in the event they are unable to re-sign Stewart next year.

A league source said Tolbert’s deal is worth $10 million, with a $2 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million bonus for the aforementioned option. Tolbert will have base salaries of $700,000 this year and $1 million in 2013.

If the Panthers exercise the option, Tolbert’s base will jump to $2.3 million in 2014 and $2.4 million in 2015. He also will receive a $25,000 bonus each year he participates in the offseason program.

Turner said Tolbert turned down an offer from San Diego that was $1.1 million more lucrative than his deal with the Panthers.

Tolbert, 26, grew up outside of Atlanta and was an undrafted free agent in 2008 after finishing at Coastal Carolina.

“For Mike, it’s a better fit,” Turner said. “He’s jacked. Even though technically Georgia’s home, the first thing he said is he’s coming home.”

Tolbert, who had a lot of short-yardage and goal-line carries in San Diego, led the Chargers with eight rushing touchdowns in 2011. But he also blocked for 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Mathews, and tied for the team lead with 12 special teams tackles.

The Panthers have made improving the special teams a focus this offseason. Their first three free agent acquisitions are proven special teams players.

“Mike is a very versatile player who can do a lot of different things for us,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said in a release. “He plays fullback, catches the ball well out of the backfield, plays running back, and is an outstanding special teams player. It was a good fit and gives us a chance to add another weapon on offense. We are excited about bringing him back to the Carolinas.”

Tolbert has 109 career receptions for 1,012 yards and six touchdowns. He played in 59 regular-season games in four seasons in San Diego, with 15 starts. But he hasn’t started more than four games since his rookie season, and Turner said he would not have a problem sharing carries with Williams and Stewart.

“Mike’s not a ‘me’ guy. He’s a ‘we’ guy. He wants to win,” Turner said. “He wants to do whatever it takes to help his team win. And his goal in coming here is nothing short of the Super Bowl.”

Kuechly to visit: Boston College middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is scheduled to come to Charlotte for a pre-draft visit with the Panthers, he told WalterFootball.com.

The Panthers have hosted Louisiana State defensive tackle Michael Brockers and North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples, and most experts think the team will target defensive line help with the ninth pick.

But with Dan Connor signing with Dallas, Jordan Senn leaving as a free agent and starters Jon Beason (Achilles) and Thomas Davis (third ACL on his right knee) coming off major surgeries, the Panthers could stand to bolster their linebacker depth.

Kuechly led the nation last season with 191 tackles, and had a great performance at the combine with 27 reps in the pro bench and a 4.58-second clocking in the 40-yard dash. Most mock drafts have Kuechly outside the top 10.

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