Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney has been at every single one of the team’s training camp and preseason practices.
He stands, arms folded, in either the corner of the end zone or on the sideline — watching, evaluating.
And in two weeks, he’ll have to make some tough decisions.
In some positions, the Panthers are saddled with a good problem: Too many guys they like, and not enough roster spots to go around.
At linebacker, the Panthers’ staff must decide among the many capable depth pieces available — the starters, of course, are cemented in. Plus, with veteran Thomas Davis suspended the first four weeks of the season, additional maneuvering will be required.
“We have a bunch of young guys (at linebacker) who are really competing out there,” said head coach Ron Rivera. “It’s going to be tough. We’ve got a good group of guys. We’ve got 10 guys we really like. It’s going to be a tough decision.”
But the competition at running back really heated up on Friday night against the Dolphins, when Kenjon Barner and Cameron Artis-Payne both had solid outings. North Carolina product Elijah Hood also ran hard, and Rivera wants to see him a little more as deliberations continue.
“They all have unique qualities, a skill set,” said Rivera. “Every one of those guys we brought in belongs in camp. And the hard thing is that we have a couple of young guys that we’re really trying to find out about, but at the same time, we haven’t been able to use them.”
With two weeks until roster cutdowns, here’s a projection for the 2018 Panthers’ 53-man roster:
Quarterbacks (3): Cam Newton, Taylor Heinicke, Garrett Gilbert
Heinicke has looked a little better than Gilbert of late, and showed his impressive wheels and competitive arm strength.
But the competition will run through the rest of the preseason, and it’s important to bear in mind that Gilbert has the advantage of a year in Carolina’s system.
It’s also probable that the Panthers keep two quarterbacks, because they may very well need to pad other positions in need of depth, like offensive line and defensive back.
Running backs (4): Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Anderson, Cameron Artis-Payne, Kenjon Barner
All four backs have impressed coaches this summer and into the preseason. Expect Hood to be stashed on the practice squad as Carolina wants to keep the local guy in their system.
Fullback (1): Alex Armah
We know new offensive coordinator Norv Turner loves using a fullback, and Armah has not disappointed this preseason despite entering just his first real year in the position. He’s been key in setting blocks for several big plays, including McCaffrey’s 71-yard touchdown run Friday.
Wide receivers (5): Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith, D.J. Moore, Jarius Wright, Curtis Samuel
Because Carolina wants to keep a fullback, has special teams value in its Nos. 3 and 4 running backs and now has a loaded wide receivers room, Damiere Byrd might be the odd man out.
Samuel, who missed the majority of last season, has really flashed his confidence and high potential in recent weeks. But Byrd is in a weird spot — he is too talented to be a yearlong practice squad player, yet this receivers room might simply be too deep.
The Panthers likely want to keep Rasheed Bailey and Jamaal Jones in their system (on the practice squad) because they like their energy and how they’ve performed on special teams, plus either player, along with Charlotte product Austin Duke, could step in if needed.
Offensive linemen (9): Matt Kalil, Ryan Kalil, Taylor Moton, Tyler Larsen, Trai Turner, Jeremiah Sirles, Greg Van Roten, Brendan Mahon, Blaine Clausell
Keep in mind that there is a strong possibility that injured Panthers right tackle Daryl Williams begins the season on injured reserve, which means that he can still return eight weeks after his designation.
At that point, the Panthers could trim a roster spot elsewhere in order to ensure they keep depth on the line — perhaps the No. 4 running back position.
Additionally, guard Amini Silatolu could return from his knee injury and nab one of these spots from Mahon, Clausell or Van Roten — though both Mahon and Van Roten have showed a lot of promise through the preseason.
Depending on their confidence level in whichever quarterback becomes the backup, I can also see them dropping the third quarterback so that an extra spot for offensive line depth (Silatolu) becomes available.
Tight ends (3): Greg Olsen, Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz
Thomas has showed real promise in the tight end No. 2 spot, both as a receiver and as a blocker.
And while Manhertz is still rehabilitating his foot, I don’t see any of the current free agent tight ends as having an edge over him as the No. 3 tight end.
But if Manhertz isn’t healthy enough to start the season, I could see the Panthers shifting Armah to the No. 3 tight end/fullback in an emergency, and using the extra spot to keep a 10th defensive back on the roster depending on health at the position.
The team doesn’t want to immediately use its second available injured reserve “designated to return” slot (the first potentially being for Williams) in case another key player gets hurt, so beginning the season on injured reserve would not be an available option for Manhertz.
Defensive linemen (9): Julius Peppers, Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, Mario Addison, Wes Horton, Kyle Love, Vernon Butler, Marquis Haynes, Bryan Cox Jr.
There’s a tight depth competition between some guys Carolina likes: Defensive ends Efe Obada and Daeshon Hall, and switch-hitter Zach Moore, who can play on the inside and the outside.
Obada really flashed this preseason, and will have a guaranteed spot on the practice squad as a member of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program. But once there, he can’t be pulled up to the 53-man roster, so the Panthers must decide if he’s shown enough to make that list now or could use another year to develop.
Linebackers (7): Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, David Mayo, Ben Jacobs, Jared Norris, Jermaine Carter Jr.
Plus one for the first four weeks (at least): Andre Smith
Davis is suspended for the first four weeks of the season, so he will not count against the 53-man roster limit and the Panthers will likely keep an “extra” linebacker during that time.
Seventh-round pick Smith could have a bright future in Carolina, though currently he’s sidelined with a hamstring injury. His first four weeks with the team might show whether he can get the edge over Norris when Davis comes back, and the Panthers revert to their regular linebacker numbers.
Defensive backs (9): James Bradberry, Mike Adams, Da’Norris Searcy, Donte Jackson, Captain Munnerlyn, Rashaan Gaulden, Corn Elder, Kevon Seymour, Colin Jones
The Panthers need depth across the board after season-ending injuries to cornerback Ross Cockrell and safety Damian Parms.
Donte Jackson has essentially snagged the No. 2 cornerback position, and having a versatile guy like Elder as depth works for Carolina in both the outside cornerback and nickel positions.
Jones is a stalwart on special teams and can play the team’s big nickel in a pinch (and got an interception while doing so last season).
If the Panthers reshuffle at tight end or running back in order to add another defensive back, safety Demetrious Cox is competing with Dezmen Southward as the next man up through the next two weeks.
And cornerback Lorenzo Doss had a really strong training camp, and will compete with Elder and Seymour through the end of August as well.
Specialists (3): Graham Gano, Michael Palardy, J.J. Jansen
No surprises here.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue