Unrestricted free agent running back Mike Tolbert is off the market as of Monday morning as he has signed a 4-year deal with the Carolina Panthers according to his agent Joel Turner. There had been speculation over the weekend by San Diego Chargers beat writer Kevin Acee that Tolbert would land with either the Panthers or the Pittsburgh Steelers, but as Gerry Dulac reported on Saturday, the Steelers had not scheduled a visit with Tolbert.
Tolbert stated prior to free agency that several teams were on his list that he could see himself as a fit with and that list included the Steelers. His words were not surprising though as you would expect a soon to be free agent open himself up to as many teams as possible. Tolbert found a less than lukewarm reception once the free agency period began and it will be interesting to see the Panther contract numbers when they surface perhaps later today.
Tolbert joins a Panthers team that already has quite a few running backs under contract in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. Stewart is entering his final year under contract and could now be trade bait with the addition of Tolbert. Cian Fahey suggested that Pittsburgh could be an interesting landing spot for Stewart if the price was right, and while it is an interesting angle, it still is very unlikely to happen.
Even with Rashard Mendenhall likely to start the 2012 season on the PUP list, the Steelers, like the Panthers, have a large stable of running backs as Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, Baron Batch and Chad Spann are all currently on the roster. Redman is the favorite to start in 2012 with Mendenhall likely still down and the others will fight for roster spots during the preseason.
While Tolbert certainly would have been a fit for the Steelers, it was never going to happen, especially this early on in free agency. You can expect the inactivity on the Southside to continue well into the spring as their free agent priorities general include re-signing their own and adding a few bargain players later in the period.
ETA: The Tolbert deal is 4-years and it includes a $2 million signing bonus and a 2012 base salary of $700,000. That should mean his 2012 cap hit for the Panthers is $1.2 million. The deal totals out at $12 million reportedly and includes an option bonus.