Carolina Panthers

Panthers No. 2 QB decision looms. Here’s where Taylor Heinicke, Garrett Gilbert stand.

There’s little time left before Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and his staff have to make a decision:

Will Garrett Gilbert or Taylor Heinicke be the No. 2 quarterback behind Cam Newton this season?

Rivera told reporters Tuesday that Heinicke would start Thursday’s final preseason game against the Steelers, with Gilbert entering the game in the second quarter. And that — after all the sweltering Spartanburg practices and a full preseason slate — will be both players’ final chance to prove they deserve the job.

With most of a team’s starters sitting for the final preseason game, typically the quarterback who begins that game is assumed to have the No. 2 job. But when asked if Heinicke was the front-runner, or even if he had an edge over Gilbert, Rivera shut down the idea.

“(Does Heinicke have an edge) other than that we’re having him start off on Thursday? No,” Rivera said. “It means Taylor starts the game as the starter.”

That neither player has separated himself yet proves just how close this competition is — and how drastically different this season is from years past.

The past seven years, Carolina’s backup quarterback battle has been, well, pretty nonexistent.

Derek Anderson, the former Pro Bowler signed by Carolina the same offseason it drafted Newton, was as entrenched in his role as the passer ahead of him. Despite only starting four games in seven years — two after Newton’s 2014 car crash, then two others in 2016 — Anderson provided something behind Newton that all teams look for in their backup signal-callers: A fighting chance.

“With DA, you always knew what you had and you always felt good about it,” Rivera said Tuesday. “You’re always comfortable and confident in his ability to come in and manage a game for you. It’s the ability to start a game and give you a chance to win.

“That’s what you want from your second guy, is that opportunity to win the game — and you felt good when you had a guy like Derek.”

But this offseason, the team didn’t re-sign Anderson, instead opening up a true competition between last season’s No. 3 QB, Gilbert, and Heinicke. Both have shined in moments this training camp and preseason, but their skill sets are fairly different.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Garrett Gilbert has the size and arm NFL teams like, but sometimes throws the ball into trouble. Adrian Kraus AP

Gilbert, at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, is more of a traditional quarterback in the sense that he has the size and arm strength teams covet. Meanwhile, Heinicke is 3 inches shorter and 2 pounds lighter, but also possesses an escapability that Gilbert lacks. Gilbert can sling the ball anywhere on the field, at times compromising accuracy to do so, but when things break down, Heinicke can extend plays with his legs.

Gilbert entered camp as the presumptive favorite, but Heinicke’s elusiveness and experience in Norv Turner’s offense have helped close the gap. Rivera had previously said Heinicke was putting the ball in danger too often this summer, but he has since improved.

“He’s gotten a little bit better with that. He’s protecting the ball pretty well,” Rivera said. “You watch the way Garrett drove the team down (against the Patriots) and is more of a prolific-style passer. He put the ball on the money to Mose Frazier in the end zone, so there’s a little bit of trade off on both guys.”

One other potential option for the Panthers? Picking up a quarterback next week once teams trim their rosters from 90 to 53 players. Last season, Carolina picked up rookie Brad Kaaya that way, although this time it could look for a more proven veteran.

But whoever eventually wins the job — whether it’s Gilbert, Heinicke or someone else entirely — the situation behind Newton is as uncertain as it’s been in his time in Charlotte.

“It’s been difficult. It really has, because every time we sit down and talk about these guys, it’s always, ‘Oh they have this, this, this,’ and then, ‘But...’ ” Rivera said. “It’s a little bit different.”