It’s over. It’s finally over.
The Carolina Panthers’ preseason concluded Thursday night in Pittsburgh with a 39-24 loss to the Steelers.
And after the game, some players turned their thoughts to the roster cuts ahead — or, to literally anything but.
“Every time the phone rings you’re just looking at the number and hoping it’s good news,” said backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who is hoping to get the nod as Carolina’s No. 2 quarterback. “It’s nerve-wracking. It’s 24 to 48 hours, it’s your livelihood. Your job is on the line. ... A lot of us guys are going to go out, watch some college ball and try to keep our minds off of it.”
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Some players, such as receiver Mose Frazier, did literally everything they could to earn a roster spot. He had the best preseason of any receiver with three touchdowns, but starters who have essentially sealed their spots crowd an improved position group.
“All positive thoughts. Nothing negative. I did what I had to do all preseason,” he said Thursday night. “Right now, it’s up to the coaches. I can’t control what they’re going to do. And it’s just up to them right now.”
Carolina may try to gauge interest from other teams in players who have performed well for them, including Frazier, receiver Damiere Byrd and backup running backs Cameron Artis-Payne and Kenjon Barner. The Panthers have holes elsewhere on the roster that they could try to fill via trade, and too many capable running backs and receivers to keep on their own roster.
That trade could be for a depth offensive lineman, or for a cheap young backup quarterback after an inconsistent preseason from Carolina’s options, Heinicke and Garrett Gilbert.
Trades are hard to predict. And they could shake out as late as Oct. 30, the NFL’s deadline. So with all else equal, this is what the Panthers’ 53-man roster might look like after Saturday’s cuts:
Quarterbacks (2): Cam Newton, Heinicke (or different backup acquired via trade)
If the backup to Cam Newton is Heinicke, it’ll be because he has experience in coordinator Norv Turner’s offense and has rushing ability, so the offense wouldn’t have to adjust much in terms of designed runs or scheme were he to enter the game.
Running backs (3): Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Anderson, Artis-Payne
If the Panthers can use Artis-Payne as trade capital for a position of need, they might do so. But Artis-Payne has been a dependable backup for the team for three years, and there’s not really any point in shaking that up if they can’t get a needed player in exchange.
Barner is a talented back with a solid set of hands. He’s also great on special teams — the Panthers signed him as a free agent with a replacement to scatback and special-teams whiz Fozzy Whittaker in mind. So this remains a tough decision for Carolina.
Update: The Panthers released Barner in their first wave of roster cuts Friday night.
Fullback (1): Alex Armah
Armah has had a stellar preseason and will be utilized heavily in Turner’s offense.
Wide receiver (5): Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith, D.J. Moore, Jarius Wright, Curtis Samuel
There are options for trade here with Byrd and Frazier, and either one could certainly make the team if the Panthers decided to keep six receivers. Frazier fits Turner’s system well and Byrd is explosive in the return game.
But with tight end Greg Olsen and McCaffrey still expected to be Newton’s top targets, it makes more sense to stack depth at a different position.
Tight end (3): Olsen, Ian Thomas, Manhertz
Manhertz passed his physical on Friday after foot surgery in June. Thomas has shown enormous potential and has essentially been a lock at No. 2 tight end since training camp began.
Offensive line (10): Taylor Moton, Matt Kalil, Greg Van Roten, Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner, Daryl Williams (or a tackle acquired via trade), Jeremiah Sirles, Amini Silatolu, Tyler Larsen, Brendan Mahon
In all its preseason offensive line chaos, Carolina found a couple of gems. Moton is a solid right or left tackle. Van Roten and Mahon show a ton of promise at left guard.
But the overall tackle depth is a disaster.
Starting left tackle Matt Kalil is week-to-week with an unknown knee injury. Williams, the starting right tackle, has made great progress in rehabilitating a torn MCL and dislocated patella. The option exists for Carolina to start the season with Williams on injured reserve, to give him time to finish his rehabilitation and strengthen his knee. This would mean likely trading for or signing tackle depth.
But because Williams has rehabbed well and Kalil’s status remains week-to-week, plus reserve tackle Sirles suffered a hamstring injury last week, Carolina’s hand might be forced to get Williams back on the field as soon as is safe.
It’s unlikely that Silatolu starts the year on injured reserve, because he is too far along in his rehabilitation of a torn meniscus to be there.
But neither Williams nor Silatolu had surgery to fix the knee problems, so when evaluating depth, the Panthers must keep in mind that throwing one or two offensive linemen with very recent knee injuries out on the field could spell trouble.
Carolina should still bring in tackle depth once the market floods with options following roster cuts.
Defensive linemen (9): Julius Peppers, Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, Mario Addison, Marquis Haynes, Vernon Butler, Kyle Love, Wes Horton, Zach Moore
There has been a tight bubble-guy battle between Bryan Cox Jr. and Daeshon Hall this preseason. But a guy who has quietly been more consistent than either is Moore.
He brings a lot of versatility, too, with the ability to play both defensive tackle and defensive end in Carolina’s various subpackages.
Otherwise, the group is strong and deep, with very few surprises.
Linebacker (8): Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson, Thomas Davis, Jermaine Carter Jr., David Mayo, Ben Jacobs, Jared Norris, Andre Smith
Davis won’t count as an eighth linebacker for the first four weeks of the season as he serves his NFL-mandated suspension.
Smith is the likely option to serve as depth when Davis is out. That would leave an extra spot elsewhere for the first four weeks (like for an offensive lineman).
But Carolina could ultimately keep the eight linebackers listed above through the end of the year, to help decide the future if Davis does ultimately retire following the season’s conclusion.
Defensive backs (9): James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, Captain Munnerlyn, Da’Norris Searcy, Mike Adams, Rashaan Gaulden, Corn Elder, Kevon Seymour, Colin Jones
Cornerback Elder makes the team because he had a strong preseason and he can play the nickel behind Munnerlyn.
Jones sticks around because he is a stalwart on special teams and he can play the big nickel in a pinch.
Seymour, who missed most of the preseason for the birth of his child and then for a root canal, could possibly get edged by fast, chippy cornerback Lorenzo Doss.
Specialists (3): Graham Gano, Michael Palardy, J.J. Jansen
Still no surprises here.