Carolina Panthers

The 5 biggest Panthers position battles to watch vs. the Patriots

We’re almost to the games that count.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Thursday’s preseason contest between the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots does technically count for something, just not in the conventional way fans think of football games.

Rather than the results impacting any sort of league standings, Thursday is one of just two remaining preseason games for fringe players to prove their value and earn their roster spots.

That applies everywhere in the NFL, including at a number of critical areas for Carolina. The Panthers’ starters are mostly set, but given the nature of injuries around the league, second- and third-team depth is as essential as ever. These five positional battles especially are worth your attention Thursday, and none is more important than backing up the face of the franchise:

1. Backup quarterback

Kyle Allen and Will Grier have been competing throughout the summer for the backup job behind Cam Newton — and neither of the two has really run away with it.

Grier, a rookie third-rounder, has long-term upside and nice touch on his deep pass, but he has struggled mightily working through his progressions. That’s the cardinal sin for a quarterback. He threw an interception against both Chicago and Buffalo by misreading coverages, and he also had a number of other attempts nearly picked. That’s a longer way of saying he’s not ready to fill in for Cam Newton yet.

Then there’s Allen, who has a clear advantage in experience and knowledge of Norv Turner’s offense in his second year in the league. Allen is a steady presence who doesn’t let his emotions get the better of him, and he doesn’t make unnecessary gambles with the ball. The problem is, sometimes he also passes up big plays at the risk of turning the ball over. He has been far and away the superior passer to Grier, but after his ineffective 4-of-11 showing against Buffalo for 32 yards, there are doubts about whether either guy is deserving of being Newton’s No. 2.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton would “ideally” play three to four series on Thursday, leaving the rest of the game for Allen and Grier to finally separate themselves.

2. Nickel cornerback

The only starting spot still up for grabs, and it’s a biggie. Between Corn Elder and Javien Elliott, does either have a firm grasp? Not really. Elliott has made more big plays during training camp, but Elder has been more dependable on a play-by-play basis — and Rivera said Tuesday the team also thinks Elder can provide depth outside.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback Javien Elliott can still earn the team’s starting nickel cornerback job if he performs well against the Patriots on Thursday. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

You could maybe throw Ross Cockrell in the mix here, but he’s more of the do-everything utility defensive back, and Rashaan Gaulden is more of a pure “big nickel” fit because of his physicality.

That really leaves Elder and Elliott, who may end up filling this role by committee if neither stands out against New England.

But can you think of a better way to prove yourself than picking off Tom Brady?

3. Backup running back

After Christian McCaffrey played the highest percentage of snaps of any back in the NFL in 2018, the Panthers’ need for a second runner to lighten the load was obvious. Now Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney have the unenviable job of trying to sift through who exactly that should be.

Cameron Artis-Payne returns for his fifth year with the team, but he’s a relatively known commodity and valuable special teamer. Reggie Bonnafon spent last season on the practice squad, and his value comes as a receiver out of the backfield. Then there’s a pair of rookies, fifth-rounder Jordan Scarlett and undrafted free agent Elijah Holyfield, with physical running styles but less knowledge of the playbook.

Artis-Payne’s spot is likely safe due to his special teams prowess, although his potential as a backup runner is limited. Scarlett has been impressive throughout training camp, and considering he missed the Chicago game with a back injury, Rivera said the team needs to get him more carries Thursday. Holyfield had a fumble and two touchdowns against Chicago, and Bonnafon was Carolina’s leading receiver against Buffalo.

If Scarlett is capable in pass protection and blitz pickup, he should be in the driver’s seat for that second job. But another strong night from Bonnafon or Holyfield could change that, given how close this race is.

4. Final wide receiver/returner

With at least four of the Panthers’ receiver spots set — DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, Jarius Wright and Chris Hogan — the question becomes how many pass-catchers the team opts to keep. With this being arguably the deepest position on the roster, it would make sense to keep six and surround Newton with players of different skill sets.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith (11) says he has “no doubt” he will make the 53-man roster as long as he stays healthy. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Torrey Smith is far from a lock to make the team given his injury history, but his locker-room presence can’t be overstated and he can still stretch the field. He’s the wild card in this equation, but for now, he’s probably safe.

The others — Andre Levrone, Aldrick Robinson, Terry Godwin, Rashad Ross, Jaydon Mickens and DeAndrew White — are all basically competing for one spot. Robinson is the only one of the lot with any pro experience, having caught a career-high five touchdowns last season, but that isn’t all this competition is going to come down to:

You gotta think about special teams.

And therein lies the dilemma of this spot: Do you keep the best pure receiver and take a “figure-it-out-later” approach to the return game? Or do you invest in a slightly-less-talented receiver that also solves your return problem?

The second seems more reasonable, and whittles that group down to three: Ross, Mickens and Godwin. Ross is the fastest, Mickens the shiftiest. But Godwin is the best combination of receiver-returner — and if he continues flashing with his punt returns, it’s going to be hard for coaches to let him go.

5. Kicker?

Is this a contest? Rivera would have you believe it’s not.

The Panthers signed “swole kicker” Joey Slye as a camp leg while incumbent Graham Gano has been dealing with soreness in his plant leg. Gano hasn’t kicked yet in the preseason, and won’t again against the Patriots. Meanwhile, all Slye has done is go a perfect 5 for 5 with two makes over 50 yards.

Impressive, to put it mildly.

Rivera has publicly backed Gano a number of times this preseason, but until Gano actually returns to the field, there are going to be lingering doubts. Given the need for kickers around the league, none more apparent than in Chicago, Slye could potentially have trade value and net the Panthers a late-round pick.

Of course, that’s if the team moves on from him at all.

Rivera says this isn’t a competition, but it is a fascinating dynamic playing out — and one that will get even more interesting if Slye keeps hitting from deep.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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