BRADENTON, Fla. Panthers running back Jonathan Stewarts status is the same as when the week started: in question.
Stewart, recovering from a sprained right ankle, missed practice again Friday as the Panthers finished their preparations at IMG Academy.
But Stewart did his most extensive cutting since he was injured in the Aug. 26 exhibition against the Jets, giving coach Ron Rivera hope he might play Sunday at Tampa Bay.
The Panthers listed Stewart as questionable, and Rivera said it likely will be Sunday before the team makes a final decision.
Well probably wait until Sunday to see. If he continues to progress, theres reason for optimism, Rivera said.
He accelerates very nicely. That doesnt seem to really be a problem, Rivera added.
Today he started to cut, so hes planting that leg in the ground. So we felt pretty good about that.
Stewart declined to comment following Fridays practice.
The Panthers signed Stewart to a five-year, $36.5 million contract extension last month rather than allow him to test free agency after the season.
The Panthers have more options in the backfield than they did last season. Besides DeAngelo Williams, the franchises all-time rushing leader, newly acquired fullback Mike Tolbert rushed for more than 1,400 yards in four seasons with the Chargers.
Rivera said he did not think Stewart would risk further injury if he plays against the Bucs without having practiced.
This is one of those things where you work all the way up and you put yourself into position, Rivera said.
Plus, with the rotation and backs we have, we feel we can put him in good situations as opposed to put him at risk.
The rest of the Panthers injury report is more definitive.
Backup offensive lineman Jeff Byers (knee) is out; linebacker Jon Beason (hamstring) and wideout Steve Smith (foot), both of whom practiced all week, are probable.
Fresh Legs: After relying mostly on John Kasay through their first 16 seasons, the Panthers will use their third opening-game place-kicker in as many years Sunday. The Panthers cut Olindo Mare last month, a little more than a year after he replaced Kasay, opting to go with the younger and stronger-legged Justin Medlock.
Medlock was outstanding during three seasons in the CFL, but the left-footed kicker hasnt attempted a regular-season kick in the NFL since 2007, when the Chiefs cut him after he missed one of two field goals in a Week 1 loss to Houston.
Rivera hoped to put Medlock in pressure situations during the preseason. Medlock missed a pair of 50-yard-plus field goals in a 17-16 loss to Pittsburgh on Aug. 30, pulling a 50-yarder left with 32 seconds left.
I thought the two kicks we got him in (Pittsburgh) were pretty good. Unfortunately, they were 50-yarder-plus. Youd like to have about a 35-yarder, Rivera said.
But he was willing to take the shots. Thats the thing I found impressive, especially the 56-yarder that he wanted to kick it.
Fresh Legs, Part II: The Panthers plan to rotate players along the defensive line and at safety Sunday, as they did throughout the preseason.
Free agent acquisition Haruki Nakamura is expected to make his first career start at free safety, although Rivera said Sherrod Martin, last years starter, also deserves to play.
I thought Sherrod did a nice job, Rivera said. To not include him in the game plan or have him be a part of what were doing I think would be a mistake.
Extra Points: The Panthers plan to remain in the Bradenton area through Saturday afternoon before making the hour-long drive to their Tampa hotel.
Rivera said the officiating by the replacement refs in Wednesdays opening game between the Giants and Cowboys was encouraging.
If Wednesdays any indicator, well be A-OK, he said.