Panthers coach Ron Rivera made no guarantees that quarterback Cam Newton or any other starter would play in Thursday’s exhibition finale at Pittsburgh.
For fans looking for a reason to tune in, this might be the most compelling one: It could be Armanti Edwards’ last stand with the Panthers.
Edwards was something of a folk hero when the Panthers gave up a future second-round pick for him in the third round of the 2010 draft. The slight, left-hander from Greenwood, S.C., was the Appalachian State quarterback who slayed Michigan in 2007 and led the Mountaineers to a pair of FCS championships.
Besides being a local legend, Edwards also was a project. And after two-plus years of trying to become a punt returner and/or a receiver in the NFL, the Edwards Experiment might be nearing an end.
Rivera said this week the Panthers likely would keep six or seven receivers when the team makes its final cuts Friday and sets its 53-man roster. If seven wideouts make it, Edwards likely will be among them.
Otherwise, it appears he is battling Seyi Ajirotutu for the final spot.
“I don’t know,” Edwards said following Wednesday’s practice. “The only thing I can focus on is myself. If I do everything I’m supposed to, everything else will take care of itself.”
What the Panthers envisioned Edwards doing when they drafted him was making plays. Edwards’ progress was impeded by John Fox, who played Edwards in just three games his rookie season.
Edwards was handed the punt-returning job last year after Ron Rivera replaced Fox. But Edwards did little with the opportunity, averaging 5.5 yards – last among returners with at least 20 attempts.
When the Panthers drafted Arkansas punt returner Joe Adams in the fourth round this year, the front office made it clear Edwards would have to make the team as a receiver. And while Edwards’ receiving skills have improved, it may not be enough.
“I feel pretty good. I think this is the best camp I’ve had since I’ve been in the league,” Edwards said. “But at the same time it’s still not where I want to be.”
Edwards has three catches for 37 yards this preseason – three more receptions than he had his first two seasons. He believes his route-running, ability to catch the ball in traffic and understanding of the offense have all improved.
“Some people can transition quickly. Some it takes more time,” Edwards said. “Unfortunately for me, it’s taken more time. But I know I can do it.”
Edwards realizes Thursday’s exhibition is his last chance to make an impression on general manager Marty Hurney and the coaching staff.
“The big thing for Armanti is to make the plays he’s been making in training,” Rivera said. “He’s had a solid camp. He’s had good performances. Now it’s to see the consistency. And again, the biggest thing is to make plays when you get the opportunity.”
Edwards expects to play the majority of Thursday’s game, although he’s on only one special team – as Adams’ backup on punt return.
Meanwhile, Ajirotutu was a regular on the Panthers’ special teams last season, which could give him an edge over Edwards if everything else is equal.
But in what could be his final audition, the man who took down Michigan in the Big House hopes he has some magic left.
Asked if he was ready for the moment, Edwards said: “Yessir, you’ve always got to be excited when it’s game time.”