Jonathan Stewart injury: Panthers RB uncertain of return date

USA TODAY Sports

Carolina gave Stewart a big contract extension in 2012 but nothing has gone the way the Panthers expected since. Now, it appears the back could miss the start of the season.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is not sure when running back Jonathan Stewart will be able to return to practice, and he hasn't ruled out the possibility of putting Stewart on the physically unable to perform list to start the year. That would keep Stewart out of a minimum of six games. The back had offseason surgery on both of his ankles and has not practiced with the team this year.

It has been a tough road for Stewart since signing a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension last August. During the first four seasons of his career, he averaged 875 yards and six touchdowns per year. He had a career-best 5.4 yards per carry and a career-high 47 catches for 413 yards in 2011, giving him 1,174 total yards, but that production severely dropped off last season. Stewart ran for 336 yards and one touchdown on just 3.6 yards per carry, and he was placed on injured reserve after nine games.

The Panthers re-negotiated the contract extension in January and opted not to part ways with DeAngelo Williams, as many had expected they would do. That's looking like a smart move now that it's not so apparent that Stewart will return by the start of the season. In addition to keeping Williams, Carolina also still has Mike Tolbert and selected fellow Oregon Duck Kenjon Barner in the sixth round of April's NFL Draft. It would leave some to wonder what kind of a future Stewart has with the Panthers, especially if he misses extended time again this season.

Rob Chudzinski, Carolina's offensive coordinator last season, left to coach the Cleveland Browns and was replaced by quarterbacks guru Mike Shula. How keen is Shula going to be on a three-, four- or even five-head rushing attack that also features Cam Newton? If Stewart starts the season on the PUP list, he may find himself as the odd one out.

That is nowhere near where anyone expected him to be when he was drafted with the 13th overall pick in 2008, or when he signed his contract extension last year.

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