Carolina Panthers

Panthers questions? On big impressions, WR cuts, backup QB (and lots about secondary)

With three games left in the Carolina Panthers’ preseason, it’s natural to have questions. Like, why is the preseason so long?

I can’t answer that one, but as far as the team is concerned, I’m here for you!

Or at least, I hope to provide a little clarity on the topics that seem to be concerning Panthers fans the most of late — like the offensive line, the secondary, the backup quarterback battle and more.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) is one of several players who are being used efficiently and explosively in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system. Jeffrey T. Barnes AP

Q. What was your biggest impression from training camp?

A. As camp ended, head coach Ron Rivera actually put words to the thought I kept having over the three weeks in Spartanburg: This team is playing faster.

It’s by design, of course. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants to be efficient, the Panthers are at their best when they play fast (hello, 2015), and general manager Marty Hurney brought in faster players at the skill positions.

Second-year running back Christian McCaffrey likes what he sees so far.

“I think the biggest thing for us is that we want to play fast,” he said after Monday’s practice. “With that, everybody has a job to do. If they do it well, then we’re going to be pretty good.

“There’s not a secret formula, some kind of secret message that (Turner) is sharing with us. It’s just going out there, playing football, and trying to score on every single play.”

Solid plan.

Former Penn State offensive lineman Brendan Mahon (63) is competing for the Carolina Panthers left guard starting position despite being an undrafted free agent rookie. David T. Foster III

Q. Should we believe the hype about left guard Brendan Mahon?

A. I’ll say this: Greg Van Roten did a nice job at the position in the team’s first preseason game.

And Rivera still wants competition there, because competition makes everyone better.

But I think Mahon takes that spot before the season is over. And not just because I want to write a cool story about how lightning struck twice with an undrafted free agent left guard finding greatness following an injury to Amini Silatolu.

I think Mahon really has that much potential. Maybe not Andrew Norwell-type ability, but there’s something impressive there.

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An intriguing competition between Taylor Heinicke (6) and Garrett Gilbert (4) to be Cam Newton’s (1) backup awaits at Carolina Panthers training camp. David T. Foster III

Q. Do you think with last week’s performance against Buffalo, Taylor Heinicke is the front-runner for the backup quarterback job?

A. I don’t think we can assign an actual front-runner until the preseason is over, unless Heinicke or Garrett Gilbert somehow scores 10 touchdowns in a quarter and develops a logical set of parameters for the new NFL hit rule.

Not happening.

Heinicke did have the better game last week, but Gilbert has been more consistent in practice. Heinicke has an impressive set of wheels, but Gilbert has a stronger arm and has been in the system for a year. See? It simply takes a larger body of work than one preseason game. Get back to me after the New England game.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rasheed Bailey (16) knows the odds are against him making the roster. Jeff Siner

Q. Which receiver do you think will get cut?

A. I actually think the Panthers will keep six receivers on the 53-man this fall: Torrey Smith, Devin Funchess, Jarius Wright, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd.

Depth concerns at other positions could change this, of course, if the Panthers need the sixth spot for an extra player elsewhere.

I also want to point out Rasheed Bailey, because he has definitely caught some attention through the end of camp.

I don’t think he will make the 53-man, but he’s a guy the Panthers likely want to find a way to keep around. Whether it’s on special teams or in drills, Bailey brings it. He has great energy and a tremendous work ethic. I bet Carolina stashes him on the practice squad and maybe even finds opportunity for him. He’s also consistent and athletic, just in case the injury bug strikes as it did last year.

Heck, if this were last year’s wide receivers room I think he’d make the team. But it’s not.

For Carolina, that’s a good problem to have.

Panthers Rookie Donte Jackson
Carolina Panthers defensive back Donte Jackson (26) has emerged as a clear leader for the No. 2 cornerback position opposite corner James Bradberry. Chuck Burton AP

Q. Actually, there were many, many reader questions about the secondary, including whether I feel confident in the rookies, the depth and at safety.

A. When Ross Cockrell got hurt, a valuable veteran depth piece was lost to the Panthers.

But also, rookie cornerback Donte Jackson really stepped up. So while the depth is still a little concerning, having Jackson emerge as a clear leader for the No. 2 cornerback position opposite corner James Bradberry is a positive step.

Kevon Seymour had a rough game in spots against Buffalo, but there’s no reason to assume he won’t bounce back on Friday. And he really needs to, in order to stay competitive with Jackson or even be a reliable depth piece for the Panthers, who want to play to matchups this season. Seymour has a different build and skill set from Jackson, so he’ll be needed. Consistency is key.

Behind Seymour, I’ve heard good things about newcomer Alex Carter, who can play both cornerback and safety. I’m curious to see him get some time. Corner Lorenzo Doss had a really strong camp, and LaDarius Gunter is trending up, although still in the concussion protocol.

Still, with up-and-coming safety Damian Parms going on injured reserve this week and Seymour’s performance last week, it’s fair to be a little worried about quality depth.

But ... it’s the preseason. Let’s not pull the fire alarm yet.

Let’s say that Jackson does earn the starting job. There will probably be some bumps in the first eight weeks or so of play. He’s really talented, but he’s still a rookie.

I think fans can draw some comfort, though, from having veteran safeties Mike Adams and Da’Norris Searcy on the field. They’re playing together like they have for years, and are a stabilizing force.

I also think rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden has a ton of potential as a smart, physical player who just needs to keep getting his feet under him. He was really quiet against Buffalo. It almost felt like he was holding something back. I doubt he’ll stay that way for long.