Carolina Panthers defensive end Wes Horton is trying to make the opening-week roster one-handed.
Horton, fighting for one of the final spots on the 53-man roster, has practiced with a black cast on his right wrist since spraining it during FanFest on Aug. 5.
Having full use of both hands is a big deal for defensive linemen, who use them to grab the jerseys of offensive linemen to gain leverage, tackle ball-carriers and pull down quarterbacks. But Horton, who was suspended four games last season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy, said he never considered missing any time.
“It didn’t really cross my mind to want to take off practice,” Horton said following Monday’s practice. “Before the wrist sprain happened, I thought I was playing pretty good ball. I felt like I was improving on my rushes and doing my job. And I didn’t want a wrist sprain to stop that momentum to showcase day in and day out that I can still be an accountable guy, I can be in the rotation.”
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Horton has started 17 games in three seasons with the Panthers, 15 of which came in 2014 after Greg Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list in the wake of his domestic violence charges.
He’s managed to collect only six career sacks at a position where pass rush is paramount. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera says the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Horton is a stout, physical player who’s valuable at stopping the run.
“If a team wants to try to mash the ball, you can put him out there. Put him to the tight-end side and he can hold the point for you,” said Rivera, adding Horton can also play defensive tackle in a pinch.
“His sack numbers have never really been gigantic,” Rivera added. “But the thing that he does bring is stability and some position flexibility, which is big.”
With Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson locked in as the starters and Mario Addison returning in his speed-rush, specialist role, Horton and Ryan Delaire are competing for the last one or two defensive end spots.
A couple of young ends -- Rakim Cox and Arthur Miley -- were expected to be in the mix after strong training camps in 2015. But Cox has been sidelined with a back injury and Miley has yet to duplicate his performance from last summer.
So despite finishing last season on the practice squad while the Panthers made their playoff run, Horton could be in uniform for the Super Bowl rematch in Denver on Sept. 8.
“We feel really confident with our starters. We like both Kony and Charles. We think those two guys are a good tandem,” Rivera said in assessing the position.
“Mario brings that spot relief guy that you’re looking for. Who’s going to be that next guy? Who’s going to be that fifth guy? That’s really what it’s coming down to. We’ll see how it all breaks down. It’s still early. They’re competing very hard right now, both of them.”
Horton thought he’d had a good start to training camp when he jammed his wrist during a 1-on-1 pass-rush drill against right tackle Mike Remmers at FanFest. When the Panthers returned to Wofford two days later, Horton was on the practice field with the cast.
“It’s one of those deals where I could pad it up and keep it pushing,” he said. “They know I’m a tough guy. They know I can play through some pain. I’d rather be out on the field than on the sideline nursing an injury.”
Horton, who’s right-handed, said the cast has made it impossible for him to “get any grip” while defending the run and also has made it tougher to shed blocks.
“But you make do with what you’ve got and you just play angry,” he said. “That usually takes care of the rest.”
Horton says his wrist is healing well and he hopes to start practicing without the cast this week or next.
He declined to handicap the competition with Delaire, a speed rusher who is trying to add to his pass-rush repertoire.
After his PED suspension derailed his 2015 season, Horton is concerned more with himself.
“I went through a lot,” he said. “It just really taught me, one, to do things the right way. And two, your job could be gone just like that. I want to prove myself that I’m out here to maximize my potential as an athlete and to do everything I can to make this football team and be a factor this season.”