By STEVE REED, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — While FB Mike Tolbert was happy playing football in San Diego, when free agency arrived and the Panthers came calling he couldn't resist an opportunity to return home to the Carolinas.
It was no cheap decision — it meant leaving $1 million on the table.
A native of Douglasville, Ga., Tolbert played at Coastal Carolina and says the decision to leave the Chargers and take less money was as much about family as it was football.
"I just wanted to raise my daughter in the South," Tolbert said when asked why he decided to sign with Carolina. "I just think this is a better place to raise a family."
Despite the presence of 1,000-yard RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers are expecting Tolbert to see quite a bit of action on offense and special teams.
Coach Ron Rivera said he views Tolbert primarily as a fullback, but that his versatility means he'll be able to line up at a variety of positions including as a short-yardage running back, split out wide as a receiver as well as blocking back for Williams, Stewart and QB Cam Newton.
He's proven capable of doing all of those during his four seasons with the Chargers, who run a similar offense to the Panthers. Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski spent three seasons as the tight ends coach under Norv Turner prior to coming to Carolina and brought with him many of the same philosophies.
The stocky 5-foot-9, 243-pound Tolbert started 30 games over the last two seasons for the Chargers, averaging 4 yards per carry while scoring 19 touchdowns on the ground.
He also caught 79 passes for 649 yards during that span, two of those going for touchdowns.
And his blocking is considered above average.
"In this type of offense there are so many different ways to use him," Rivera said. "He does so many things well it's hard to pick" what he's best at. The Chargers knew that, which is why they offered Tolbert $9.4 million over the next four seasons to re-sign this offseason.
He settled on a four-year deal worth $8.4 million to play for the Panthers instead.
"It was time for a change, and I just think first of all the South is a better place to raise a family," Tolbert said. "And from a football standpoint, just knowing the offense and knowing people here, I just think it was a natural fit for me."
Aside from wanting to raise his family here, a chance to play for Chudzinski also factored into his decision to come to Carolina.
"The guy is an innovator," Tolbert said. "He knows what he's doing."
Stewart, for one, is happy to have Tolbert on board.
"He's going to help out a lot," said Stewart. "Defenses what know what to expect, especially with the things that Chud(zinski) has in store for us. I think he's a really, really good asset. He's going to help keep defenses off balance."
Tolbert's presence also gives the Panthers a security blanket in case they're unable to re-sign Stewart, whose contract expires after this season.
The Panthers wanted to extend Stewart's contract earlier this offseason, but were unable to strike a long-term deal.
They've not given up hope of doing so.
"I definitely hope things work out," Stewart said. "I want to be back. I think we have a lot of weapons on offense and we can be a dangerous team."
NOTES: QB Cam Newton was excused from voluntary workouts Friday to attend a previously planned charity event in the Atlanta area, Rivera said. Newton is expected to return to practice next week. The Panthers wrap up OTAs next week and then have a three-day minicamp the week after.
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