Carolina Panthers

Who will be on Carolina Panthers’ 53-man roster? Here’s the latest projection

Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, right, breaks past Tennessee Titans cornerback Brice McCain in the first half of Saturday’s exhibition in Nashville. McCaffrey finished with 33 yards rushing on three carries and had 39 yards on two receptions in the 34-27 loss to the Titans.
Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, right, breaks past Tennessee Titans cornerback Brice McCain in the first half of Saturday’s exhibition in Nashville. McCaffrey finished with 33 yards rushing on three carries and had 39 yards on two receptions in the 34-27 loss to the Titans.

Halfway through the exhibition schedule, the Panthers still have a lot of questions about the makeup of their roster.

Their secondary depth remains an issue, particularly at safety. Two of their drafted rookies are still dealing with injuries, and the first-team offense was a mess at Tennessee.

On the positive side, they have several players whose versatility provides a great deal of roster flexibility – not the least of whom is do-it-all, first-round pick Christian McCaffrey.

With an important third exhibition coming up Thursday in Jacksonville, the Observer takes its second crack at projecting the Panthers’ 53-man roster.

(Changes from the last projection noted in bold.)

Quarterbacks (3): Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb.

The skinny: Anderson had a rough start against the Titans, although you can’t blame him for Devin Funchess’ first-play fumble. Anderson settled down a bit after a first-quarter interception, but it was not a performance that inspired confidence.

The biggest question, of course, involves the health of Newton, whose workload will increase this week. Newton looked rusty during the practices with the Titans, and the Panthers hope his shoulder is strong enough that he plays against the Jaguars.

Running backs (5): Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne, Alex Armah.

Carolina Panthers rookie fullback Alex Armah scored on a 20-yard pass from Joe Webb in Saturday’s exhibition against Tennessee. Jeff Siner

The skinny: McCaffrey was the story of the Titans’ exhibition with several “spark plays,” as tight end Greg Olsen called them. McCaffrey kept the ball after his first NFL touchdown, and his role will increase when Mike Shula breaks out the wrinkles he’s been saving for the regular season.

The fight for the final backfield spot (spots?) became a lot more interesting in Nashville. Armah fired up teammates with a big hit during a special teams drill, then scored on a 20-yard pass from Webb in the exhibition. But Artis-Payne also stepped up with five carries for 70 yards, including a 43-yard pickup and a 1-yard touchdown.

Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey describes his first NFL touchdown, a 17-yard run against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2017.

Wide receivers (6): Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Russell Shepard, Curtis Samuel, Brenton Bersin, Damiere Byrd.

Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel is expected to return to practice this week from a pulled hamstring injury. Jeff Siner

The skinny: Samuel, sidelined by a pulled hamstring since the first training camp practice, is expected to return this week. That’s good news for a receiving corps that struggled at times to gain separation in the practices with the Titans.

Bersin was hurt for the second exhibition in a row, but is not expected to miss extended time with the shoulder injury. He had two catches for 28 yards before exiting.

Byrd, who had a big game against the Texans, finished with no catches (on one target) on Saturday and made a couple of questionable decisions as a returner.

Tight ends (3): Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Chris Manhertz.

The skinny: Dickson, aligned as an H-back/fullback, had a great block on McCaffrey’s 17-yard touchdown run. As noted here previously, Dickson’s value as a blocker could impact what the Panthers do with their fullbacks. Manhertz had a 5-yard catch at Tennessee, while Scott Simonson missed the trip with a leg injury.

Offensive linemen (9): Ryan Kalil, Matt Kalil, Daryl Williams, Trai Turner, Andrew Norwell, Taylor Moton, Tyler Larsen, Amini Silatolu, Gino Gradkowski.

Carolina Panthers backup center Gino Gradkowski played in snaps with the second unit against the Tennessee Titans in Saturday’s exhibition. Jeff Siner

The skinny: This group seems pretty well set except for the final spot, maybe two. Gradkowski gets the nod this week over Chris Scott, who did not make the trip to Nashville because of an unspecified injury. While Larsen got the start Saturday for Ryan Kalil, Gradkowski played 16 snaps with the second unit.

Defensive linemen (9): Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, Wes Horton, Daeshon Hall, Kyle Love, Vernon Butler.

The skinny: No changes to the defensive front, despite the fact Butler (knee) and Love (ankle) remain sidelined. Addison and Horton had trouble setting the edge on a couple of outside run plays against the Titans. It was entertaining watching Peppers chase Matt Cassel around the pocket in Peppers’ first preseason action since returning.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talks about what he saw in the preseason loss against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. He also addressed Cam Newton's recovery.

Linebackers (6): Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, David Mayo, Jared Norris, Jeremy Cash.

The skinny: It was a mixed bag for the backup linebackers at Tennessee. Mayo, who started in place of Luke Kuechly, led all defenders with 10 tackles. And Cash was active with four tackles, a sack and another quarterback hit. But Norris and Ben Jacobs did not make the most of their defensive reps.

Defensive backs (9): James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, Mike Adams, Kurt Coleman, Captain Munnerlyn, Colin Jones, Teddy Williams, Cole Luke, L.J. McCray.

L.J. McCray
Carolina Panthers safety L.J. McCray looks like he could also be a factor on special teams. Jeff Siner

The skinny: The thinking here is that interim general manager Marty Hurney still will look to beef up the secondary with a veteran acquisition after roster cutdowns. With each passing week Corn Elder remains out with a patella stress fracture, it seems more likely the fifth-round pick will begin the season on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform list.

McCray, the Charlotte native who played at Catawba, was beaten badly in coverage against the Titans. But he also had a great tackle in punt coverage despite being blocked in the back, and looks like he could be a factor on special teams.

Specialists (3): Graham Gano, Michael Palardy, J.J. Jansen.

The skinny: Coach Ron Rivera keeps saying the punting competition is the real battle among the specialists, and right now Palardy looks to have the edge. Andy Lee, coming off a hamstring injury that ended his 2016 season in October, did not punt against the Titans. Meanwhile, Palardy averaged 49.5 yards on two punts, with a net of 49.0.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson