For a handful of Carolina Panthers, the dream of playing in the NFL could come to an end this week.
The Panthers and the other 31 NFL teams must trim their rosters from 75 players to 53 by Saturday afternoon. Some of the 22 leftover players will find landing spots, some will not.
Thursday night’s final exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Steelers will be a make-or-break game for a number of Panthers trying to make the final roster.
“This is a very important game because you’ll have a number of veteran guys who won’t play a lot, a number of starters who won’t play a lot, so the young guys will get their opportunities to come in and show us what they can do,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We have a lot of positions where there are a lot of battles – offensive line is one of them, obviously. Our defensive end position is another one. Our wide receiver is a big one. There are a lot of guys who are fighting for positions on this team.”
Of course, Rivera does not mean starting positions will be decided Thursday night. A group of starters will play against the Steelers, though Rivera declined to get into specifics.
It’s possible, although unlikely, Cam Newton will play against the Steelers. He played in just one drive during the final exhibition his rookie year and didn’t play in the game last season.
Rivera has said that despite the inability of the Panthers’ first-team offense to get the ball in the end zone more than once this preseason, he wouldn’t play Newton for the sole purpose of gaining confidence going into the regular season.
Backup quarterback Derek Anderson and third-stringer Jimmy Clausen could split the game, and while Rivera knows what he has in those two, he’ll be focused on the offensive linemen in front of them.
At no other position is Carolina more banged up than at offensive line. Guard Amini Silatolu will likely miss Week 1, primary backup Jeff Byers has a knee injury and rookie guard Edmund Kugbila was just placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
Injuries have also stymied the competition for No. 3 wide receiver. Domenik Hixon entered camp as the frontrunner, but Armanti Edwards looked to have won it after Hixon’s hamstring injury. After Edwards suffered his own hamstring strain, David Gettis emerged as the leader.
“We have a big mix of guys to consider as to who’s going to be the 3 and I will say this too, it doesn’t matter who the 3 is,” Rivera said. “There will be packages that each guy will have that make that roster as far as our wide receivers are concerned.”
Practice was closed to the media Wednesday, but Edwards said Tuesday he wasn’t sore after his second practice back from the hamstring strain and was hopeful he will play Thursday.
On the other side of the ball, Rivera indicated depth at defensive line and safety is still undecided. Players such as Craig Roh, Casey Walker and Wes Horton could be fighting for one of the final linemen positions. Anderson Russell and Robert Lester could be vying for an extra safety spot.
A premium is placed on bubble players with versatility. Colin Jones played very little safety for the team last year, but his role of gunner on special teams gives him a boost. The same can be said for running back Armond Smith, who was active last year for three games but is also in the kick return rotation.
“Knowing that this is your last chance and they’re doing final cuts, this game is very, very important, and I think good teams make some tough decisions on these days to establish your role players and your special teams guys,” veteran left tackle Jordan Gross said. “Whether you keep an extra receiver or an extra running back or an extra safety, all that comes down to how they play on the field, if they need to get in there outside of their special teams role. So this is a huge game for the team.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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