Free Agency

Carolina Panthers add power with veteran fullback Mike Tolbert | CharlotteObserver.com

Carolina Panthers add power with veteran fullback Mike Tolbert | CharlotteObserver.com & The Charlotte Observer Newspaper.

Mike Tolbert’s versatility extends to his touchdown dances – something the Panthers’ new running back had plenty of practice with the past two seasons.

Tolbert, who scored 19 rushing touchdowns from 2010-2011 with the San Diego Chargers, incorporates a variety of moves in his colorful celebration.

“A little shimmy, a little shake, a little Dougie, a little bit of everything,” Tolbert said. “And a belly rub at the same time.”

But with Tolbert joining a team already well-stocked at running back, some question how many opportunities Tolbert will have to break out his end zone celebration with the Panthers.

Of the needs facing the Panthers entering the free agency period, running back seemed to be down the list – right above quarterback. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, healthy and under contract for this season, already had seen their carries decrease with the arrival of quarterback Cam Newton.

Now a third back is in the mix.

But the Panthers believe the multifaceted Tolbert will bring a different dimension to the offense – and the special teams, as well. Tolbert signed a four-year deal worth $10 million after turning down more money from the Chargers and canceling a visit with Tampa Bay.

General manager Marty Hurney believes signing Tolbert made sense on several levels for the Panthers, who entered the weekend with the smallest salary cap space in the NFL at $1.08 million, according to ESPN.com.

“We found the chance to get a very good football player that fit in financially for us,” Hurney said. “He’s so versatile. He’s a fullback. He’s a good special teams player. He can run the ball, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. It’s just one of those good fits.”

Tolbert likes the fit, too.

Tolbert, a native of Georgia, played at Coastal Carolina, outside of Myrtle Beach. He was in San Diego with Panthers coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, and said that familiarity was key in his decision to come to Charlotte.

“It played a huge role, not having to learn a new offensive scheme or new coaches,” Tolbert said in a phone interview. “It’s like playing for the Chargers again, but in a new city. I mean, it’s the same offense.”

Tolbert, 26, admitted having initial concerns about finding his place in the offense. Williams and Stewart are proven backs, and in 2009 became the first tandem in NFL history each to run for 1,100 yards.

“I’ve never been opposed to hard work and working for what I want, so why should this be any different?” Tolbert said.

“It’s going to be fun to be a part of what I would call the best running back group in the league. The ball’s going to be passed around between all of us, hopefully.”

The Panthers say they’re not shopping Williams or Stewart. But after giving Williams a 5-year, $43 million extension last year, they could have trouble re-signing Stewart when he becomes a free agent in 2013.

Tolbert’s deal includes a $1.5 million option bonus the Panthers must exercise next year for the final two years of his contract.

The deadline of the option clause is important: If the Panthers fail to re-sign Stewart, they have a fall-back option already on the roster.

“They’ve got two good running backs,” Tolbert said. “Jonathan’s coming up next year to be a free agent. So who knows what’s going to happen with that situation?”

If the Panthers keep all three backs this year and Tolbert’s touches are limited, he’ll find other ways to contribute. At various times, the 5-9, 243-pound Tolbert was an upback on the Chargers’ kickoff return team, covered kicks and served as the personal protector on the punt team.

Tolbert’s 12 special teams tackles last season tied for the team lead, and he had more special teams spots over the past three years than any other Charger.

Tolbert led San Diego in 2010 with 735 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. But when Darren Sproles left for New Orleans before last season, Tolbert took over as the Chargers’ primary receiving threat out of the backfield.

Tolbert’s 54 receptions were the fourth most among running backs, behind Sproles (86), Ray Rice (76) and Chris Johnson (54).

“He’ll help us in so many ways,” Hurney said. “His versatility is exceptional.”

“They expect me to run the ball, catch the ball, block, play special teams if need be,” Tolbert said. “I’m going to do it all.”

Tolbert was used primarily as a fullback at Coastal Carolina, the FCS school where Tolbert had classes with PGA golfer Dustin Johnson. The Chanticleers didn’t need Tolbert to catch many passes because they had receiver Jerome Simpson, the Cincinnati Bengals’ second-round pick in 2008.

But former Coastal coach David Bennett said Tolbert’s muscular physique belied his athleticism.

“He’s as flexible as Gumby,” Bennett said. “You’d never think a guy that rocked-up would be that flexible and that athletic.”

Bennett said Tolbert developed his dance steps before arriving in the NFL. Tolbert once won $250 in a dance contest at halftime of a Coastal men’s basketball game, according to Bennett.

“Cam Newton’s got his work cut out for him in out-dancing Mike Tolbert,” said Bennett, who predicts Tolbert’s personality and work ethic will win over his new teammates and fans.

“He’ll lay his heart on the line every week for the Carolina Panthers,” Bennett said, “because that’s who he is.”

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