INDIANAPOLIS For the first time in a decade, former Timberline High School superstar Jonathan Stewart needs an NFL home.
Coincidentally, the NFL team that plays a hour up I-5 from where he was born and grew up needs a running back. Or three.
Stewart’s 10 years with the Carolina Panthers ended Wednesday. The only NFL he’s played for released its career rushing leader and the Panthers’ 13th-overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Oregon, to save money.
The Panthers saved $3.7 million against their 2018 salary cap by cutting the former high-school star in Lacey. Stewart is part of a salary purge in Carolina that has also resulted in the Panthers releasing safety Kurt Coleman and defensive end Charles Johnson.
Stewart’s 7,755 yards rushing in 39 games for Timberline from 2001-04 remain a Washington high school record. He also had 105 touchdowns and was a 100-meter sprinter for the Blazers. He then chose Oregon over USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, California--and seemingly every other top school that had a bag of footballs.
Stewart’s final game for the Panthers was their loss at New Orleans in January’s playoffs. Stewart had 11 carries for 51 yards that day in the Superdome.
Carolina general manager Marty Hurney drafted Stewart 10 years ago, then gave Stewart his first contract extension in 2011. He gave him his Carolina exit Wednesday.
"Jonathan played the game the way you want. He brought an element of toughness as a runner that set the tempo for our team," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He is a great pro, and I appreciate who he is as a young man and thank him for the contribution he made."
Stewart leaves Carolina as its career rushing leader with 7,318 yards. His 1,699 career rushing attempts are also the most in franchise history. His 58 career touchdowns are second in Panthers history. According to spotrac.com, Stewart earned $47.8 million in his 10 years with Carolina.
Would a Western Washington homecoming be viable?
Born at Madigan Army Medical Center on Fort Lewis, Stewart left the Puget Sound region as a young child as his father’s Army career took the family to Hawaii, California and Georgia. According to this 2013 story in Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Northwest Guardian, Jonathan moved back to the South Sound when his dad got assigned back to Fort Lewis before Jonathan began first grade.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has already promised to return Seattle’s offense to the run in 2018, and to up the roster competition at running back. No NFL team got less production from its backs in 2017 than the Seahawks did from theirs. Without Russell Wilson’s scrambling and team-leading rushing yards, the league’s 25th-ranked run offense last season would have been 32nd and last, by far.
“We have a real formula for how we win. We've been unable to incorporate a major aspect of that: running the football the way we want,” Carroll said at the start of this offseason.
At age 30, Stewart would be inexpensive on what would likely be a low-risk, short-term deal for a Seahawks team that is tight against the salary cap. At 235 pounds, Stewart has the size Carroll prefers in his backs.
Stewart averaged a just 3.4 yards per carry in 2017, his career low (680 yards on 198 rushes). Panthers quarterback Cam Newton set a career high in rushing attempts while Stewart gained his fewest total yards since his injury-filled 2013.
Plus, there are other veteran, accomplished backs available if the Seahawks want to add a veteran to their backfield. Indianapolis is going to release Frank Gore, whose style Carroll has long admired from back when Gore was romping with the 49ers. But Gore is now 34. Former Jacksonville running back Chris Ivory, 29, is making free-agent visits this week.
Plus, plus: This draft is deep in top running backs. The Seahawks are scouting many of them here at the combine.
Yet the mere thought of Stewart coming home to play is at least possible. It was not for pretty much the last decade. Until Wednesday.