The Carolina Panthers are only a fourth of the way through the preseason schedule – and most of their starters sat or only played a couple of series in the exhibition opener against Houston.
But it’s never too soon for the Observer’s first projection of the 53-man roster, which won’t be set until Sept. 2 after the NFL did away with the initial round of cuts this year.
We’ll update our projections after every preseason game, making allowances for the likelihood that interim general manager Marty Hurney will add a veteran or two from among the more than 1,100 players who will flood the market on cutdown day.
Quarterbacks (3): Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb.
The skinny: The concern here is not who makes the team, but how Newton’s shoulder will hold up. Newton resting has meant more reps for everyone else – including former Texas and TCU QB Garrett Gilbert, who has looked good in camp. Anderson’s experience and Webb’s versatility give them the edge, though Gilbert should find work elsewhere.
Running backs (4): Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne.
The skinny: Because of their tight ends’ versatility, it’s possible the Panthers will not keep a true fullback. In this scenario, that means sixth-round pick Alex Armah, who didn’t play the position in college, is out and Artis-Payne is in. Speaking of versatility, McCaffrey’s receiving skills could impact the roster numbers at wideout.
Wide receivers (6): Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Russell Shepard, Curtis Samuel, Damiere Byrd, Brenton Bersin.
The skinny: The first four are locks. Samuel has been dealing with a hamstring issue that first cropped up in the spring, but the second-round pick from Ohio State seems to be on the mend. Byrd took a step forward with his 98-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Texans. Plus, he returns kicks. Kaelin Clay put his name in the conversation by showing good burst vs. Houston.
Tight ends (3): Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Chris Manhertz.
The skinny: Manhertz is one of several former college basketball players (DE Larry Webster, TE Eric Wallace, DE Julius Peppers) on the Panthers’ roster. Manhertz is a terrific athlete, but struggled with drops early in camp. Scott Simonson made the Week 1 roster last season but has been slowed by a hamstring injury recently.
Offensive linemen (9): Ryan Kalil, Matt Kalil, Daryl Williams, Trai Turner, Andrew Norwell, Taylor Moton, Tyler Larsen, Amini Silatolu, Chris Scott.
The skinny: Silatolu was primarily a guard during his first stint with the Panthers, but he has played a ton of snaps this summer behind Kalil at left tackle. Ron Rivera loves the position flexibility that players such as Silatolu, Scott and Larsen provide. The Panthers seem to need a little more depth at tackle because Moton and Williams have played exclusively on the right side, so a late addition is not out of the question.
Defensive linemen (9): Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, Wes Horton, Daeshon Hall, Kyle Love, Vernon Butler.
The skinny: Love and Butler, the backup defensive tackles and key parts of the interior rotation, are both dealing with injuries. Love has been out for most of camp with an ankle injury, and Butler sprained his knee during the exhibition opener and could miss the rest of the preseason. Hall, a third-round pick, needs to add some bulk to his 6-5 frame.
Linebackers (7): Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, David Mayo, Jared Norris, Ben Jacobs, Jeremy Cash.
The skinny: The final two or three linebacker spots will be determined largely by special teams skills, and Norris, Jacobs and Cash all have experience in that department. Former Clemson LB Ben Boulware and ex-ECU standout Zeek Bigger didn’t get much work vs. the Texans. Bigger’s speed makes him a better special teams fit than Boulware.
Defensive backs (9): James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, Mike Adams, Kurt Coleman, Captain Munnerlyn, Colin Jones, Teddy Williams, Cole Luke, Free agent TBD.
The skinny: Safety depth remains an issue after Dean Marlowe was waived this week with a hamstring injury. Dezmen Southward had six tackles and recovered a fumble against the Texans, but also had a couple of miscues in coverage. Have to think Hurney and the pro scouts will be scouring the waiver wire looking for help. Rookie Corn Elder has yet to practice with a knee injury but could help if he can get healthy.
Specialists (3): Graham Gano, Andy Lee, J.J. Jansen.
The skinny: Yes, Gano missed a 50-yard field goal against Houston in an eerily similar fashion as his miss in Week 1 last year in Denver. But he’s shown a stronger, more consistent leg in camp than rookie Harrison Butker. Butker, the seventh-round pick, has been adjusting to the bigger NFL ball. But he drilled a 51-yarder late vs. the Texans to serve notice that this competition is not yet decided.