The biggest game of the preseason for Carolina Panthers starters may have been last Thursday against the Jaguars in Jacksonville, but for the rest of the team, the biggest week is right now.
It’s the final week before the lone, massive cut to finalize rosters across the NFL. This year, teams were allowed to keep 90 players through the preseason instead of trimming their rosters to 75 before the final game, then 53 players by Sept. 2.
Many players know their spot on the roster is safe. But for the “fringe” players – depth pieces and undrafted free agents, especially – nothing is ever certain.
Carolina has five players in particular who largely were unnoticed among the stars when camp started, but who have a real shot as making the 53-man roster this week.
Michael Palardy, punter
Palardy, a lefty, was signed halfway through the 2016 season after starter Andy Lee tore his hamstring. It was expected that Lee would just resume his status as the shoo-in starter in 2017 despite Palardy being brought in as camp competition, but Palard has really impressed this preseason and head coach Ron Rivera said this week that the battle between the two is “even.”
Palardy’s net punting average (on six preseason punts) ranks second in the league at 44.7 yards, slightly better than Lee’s 43.8-yard net average (on five punts).
Palardy signed a one-year deal with Carolina in April for $540,000, so he is the cheaper option, but Lee’s contract may complicate matters. The veteran kicker took a pay cut this spring from base salaries of $3.43 million in 2017 and $4.13 million in 2018 to $1 million and $1.1 million (not including bonuses) so the savings are not as big as they were.
Eric Crume, defensive tackle
Crume’s opportunity is based largely on need. Defensive tackle Kyle Love, who was signed to a one-year extension this spring, missed most of camp and the preseason as he continues to rehabilitate an ankle injury. Second-year defensive tackle (and 2016 first-round draft pick) Vernon Butler is healing a sprained knee.
So Crume has gotten ample opportunity behind starters Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei this preseason, and Rivera has liked what he has seen.
“He’s played more snaps I think than any defensive lineman,” said Rivera. “And when he’s been in there, our linebackers have still been able to run, and run well.
“That’s probably one of the big tests that I look at, is ‘Does a nose tackle, does a three-technique allow the linebackers to run?’”
L.J. McCray, safety
There is a definite need for depth at safety, and Carolina will probably seek a post-cuts addition. But they’ll want to take a longer look at some of the guys they have now, and L.J. McCray could be one of those players.
McCray has not participated in practice for the past two days with an undisclosed injury, but Rivera said Monday that the coaches will evaluate the complete body of work for these “fringe” players – including McCray’s solid contribution on special teams.
“He’s shown up very nicely throughout (organized team activities) and minicamp as well,” said Rivera. “You know, we’re going to judge guys on everything that they’ve done.”
Cameron Artis-Payne, running back
One of the strongest preseason and training camp campaigns came from backup running back Cameron Artis-Payne, who has rushed for 129 yards (fourth in the league in the preseason) and three touchdowns, with an average of 6.5 yards per carry.
When Carolina drafted Christian McCaffrey No. 8 overall in the spring, it looked like Artis-Payne’s window was closing with the Panthers. But McCaffrey’s versatility will be used largely as a complement to starter Jonathan Stewart’s pounding, punishing style. And Stewart, 30, has not stayed healthy for a full season since 2011. Carolina may want another power back as depth in case Stewart gets hurt again, so McCaffrey would not have to take over purely lead back duties, which would possibly take away from his snaps as a receiving threat.
Cole Luke, cornerback
Luke is perhaps the biggest surprise on this list as a rookie undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame. His number was called almost immediately because oof injuries to starting nickel Captain Munnerlyn, draft pick Corn Elder and second-year corner Zack Sanchez early in training camp.
Luke can play the nickel and on the outside, and already has impressed star linebacker Luke Kuechly, who said that playing with Luke “doesn’t feel like he’s a rookie.”
Carolina does need depth at corner and Luke’s versatility and the way he has adapted to the NFL has to make him an appealing option.
“Coming into it, I came in with the mindset that I was going to fill in wherever needed,” Luke said on Monday. “If somebody is going to to go down, whether it’s a helmet comes off, an injury or whatever it may be, the next guy behind him needs to step in and he’s got to know exactly what’s going on and he needs to not let there be any slack when he comes in the game.
“I try to take camp with that same mindset, where I need to be ready regardless of what position, when my name is called.”