While Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and most of the Carolina Panthers starters watched Thursday’s final exhibition from the sideline in sweats and rain gear, several of their teammates were playing the opening minutes against the Pittsburgh Steelers like their roster spots depended on it.
Because that was precisely the case.
Reserve linebacker Ben Jacobs appeared to aggravate his injured ankle on the opening kickoff. The special teams contributor came to the sideline, had his ankle re-taped and went back in the game.
Rookie tight end Beau Sandland stuck on one of his blocks past the line of scrimmage during the Panthers’ first offensive drive, prompting a Pittsburgh defender to push Sandland in the face.
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Backup free safety Colin Jones came free on a delayed blitz in the first quarter to sack Steelers second-string quarterback Landry Jones (no relation).
With final roster cuts coming by 4 p.m. Saturday, this was the last chance for many of the Panthers’ young players and journeymen to show they deserved one of the final spots on the 53-man roster.
The Observer makes it final projection of the 53 players the Panthers will take to Denver (changes noted in bold):
Quarterbacks (3): Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb
Newton and Derek Anderson, who was banged around a bit last week vs. New England, were given the night off Thursday. That meant for a long night for Webb, who will slide into his normal special teams role while Newton takes aim at the Broncos’ secondary next week in Denver.
Running backs (4): Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne
Brandon Wegher had a handful of first-half carries on the wet turf Thursday, gaining 12 yards around right end on one of his runs. But Wegher didn’t have the kind of preseason he had last year (two touchdowns) and could be the odd man out.
Receivers (6): Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr., Philly Brown, Brenton Bersin, Damiere Byrd
Byrd is one of those players who makes you stop what you’re doing and watch when he has the ball – even in a meaningless exhibition against Pittsburgh’s scrubs. He’s undersized (5-9, 180) and might not crack the receiving rotation most Sundays, but his speed is worth keeping around. Keyarris Garrett seems like a practice squad candidate, and Kevin Norwood’s hopes likely were dashed when he left Thursday’s game with a hip injury.
Tight ends (3): Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Scott Simonson
The Panthers kept four tight ends last season, but one of them was Richie Brockel, who played tight end and fullback. Marcus Lucas caught two touchdown passes late in the loss to the Patriots. This could be a position that’s affected by the injuries in the secondary, where an extra player or two will be needed the first couple of games. Sandland and Aussie Rules convert Eric Wallace could be stashed on the practice squad.
Offensive linemen (9): Michael Oher, Andrew Norwell, Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner, Mike Remmers, Gino Gradkowski, Donald Hawkins, Daryl Williams, Chris Scott
Carolina will take the same first-team line to Denver that started the Super Bowl. But there are still questions about the second unit. Scott came back from a shoulder injury to play well enough to secure one of the backup spots.
Defensive linemen (9): Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Kony Ealy, Mario Addison, Wes Horton, Vernon Butler, Paul Soliai, Ryan Delaire
Ron Rivera said early in training camp that there would be tough decisions to make for the last couple of spots up front. Ultimately, the feeling here is the Panthers will go with five defensive ends and four tackles, with Kyle Love on the outside looking in.
Linebackers (6): Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, A.J. Klein, David Mayo, Jeremy Cash
Every year there’s an undrafted rookie who catches the coaches’ eyes by making plays throughout the preseason. Cash, the former Duke standout, is that guy this year. GM Dave Gettleman has a tough decision to make between Mayo and Jacobs, both of whom are on all the special teams. Ultimately, the time Jacobs missed due to injury might be the difference.
Defensive backs (10): James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, Kurt Coleman, Tre Boston, Zack Sanchez, Bené Benwikere, Robert McClain, Colin Jones, Stevie Brown, Teddy Williams
Brown, the veteran safety who signed Wednesday, will have his work cut out learning the defensive schemes in a week. But given the hamstring injury to Dean Marlowe, the Panthers likely don’t have a choice but to keep him. Kuechly this week pointed to McClain, who started in Super Bowl 50, as an underrated piece in the secondary. Williams makes it because of his special teams skills. When in doubt, it’s tough to leave off a guy who briefly had the fastest 100 time in the world a few years ago.
Specialists (3): Graham Gano, Andy Lee, J.J. Jansen
Giving up a fourth-round pick seemed like a desperation trade for Gettleman, especially when the Broncos cut Britton Colquitt the next day. But on Lee’s first punt against the Steelers, he dropped a 37-yarder inside the 10 – which is why Gettleman felt he had to have him.