Who’s going to make the cut for the 53-man roster when the final picks are sent to the league next week? Here’s a preliminary look at who we think has made the Carolina Panthers’ depth chart through three preseason games:
Cam Newton. Reserves: Kyle Allen, Will Grier.
Why? Given that he was a third-round pick in April, the team can’t afford to cut Grier. But he certainly isn’t ready to step in if Newton misses any time, so for better or worse, Allen should be the No. 2 to start the year. Even if he doesn’t make many big plays, he has a solid grasp of the offense and keeps his emotions in check. That counts for something.
Running back (3)
Christian McCaffrey. Reserves: Jordan Scarlett, Cameron Artis-Payne.
Why? Scarlett’s blend of size and speed is the most intriguing of any of the backup options, and his hands have been a pleasant surprise so far this preseason. If he continues improving in pass protection — an essential skill for any young back — he should be able to shoulder some of the short-yardage carries previously reserved for McCaffrey. Artis-Payne is involved enough on special teams to make him indispensable.
Why? His growth from a former collegiate tight end/defensive end/linebacker into a capable blocker has been crucial to McCaffrey’s success. Plus, Norv Turner loves him some fullbacks.
Wide receiver (6)
DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, Jarius Wright. Reserves: Chris Hogan, Torrey Smith, Terry Godwin.
Why? That starting trio is as locked in as anyone on the roster, but after that, there’s a ton of young talent to sift through. Hogan has Super Bowl experience and is a dependable possession receiver, and Smith can still stretch the field when healthy — although that’s far from a given. Godwin isn’t the best return option, but he is the best combination receiver-returner, which should net him the final slot here.
Tight end (3)
Greg Olsen, Ian Thomas. Reserve: Chris Manhertz.
Why? Expect more two-tight end sets this season, especially since Thomas has a full year of NFL experience under his belt. Olsen is still one of Newton’s most reliable targets, but as the oldest player on the team with a particularly nasty injury history as of late, you don’t want to overload him. Manhertz’s blocking ensures he sticks around, even if he never catches another touchdown pass in his career.
Offensive line (9)
Left tackle: Daryl Williams. Reserves: Greg Little, Taylor Moton.
Left guard: Greg Van Roten. Reserves: Taylor Hearn, Dennis Daley.
Center: Matt Paradis. Reserves: Tyler Larsen, Van Roten.
Right guard: Trai Turner. Reserves: Daley, Hearn.
Right tackle: Moton. Reserves: Little, Williams.
Why? The two biggest question marks here were at left tackle and left guard. Drafting Little in the second round led some pundits to assume he could contend for the team’s starting job at left guard, which theoretically would have freed Williams up to slide to guard. There was also the possibility of shifting Moton to the left side and putting Williams back at his natural spot, right tackle. Instead, the team will take the same slow approach with Little that it did with Moton and Williams, meaning last year’s left guard Van Roten maintains his spot.
Defensive line (11)
Defensive tackle (4-3 front): Gerald McCoy, Kawann Short. Reserves: Dontari Poe, Kyle Love, Vernon Butler Jr.
Defensive tackle (3-4 front): McCoy, Poe, Short. Reserves: Love, Butler Jr.
Defensive end (4-3): Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin. Reserves: Brian Burns, Efe Obada, Marquis Haynes, Christian Miller.
Defensive end (OLB in 3-4): Addison, Irvin. Reserves: Burns, Haynes, Miller, Obada.
Why? A little confusing, perhaps, but the biggest thing to know is that the defensive ends/outside linebackers will have to be capable of running both schemes — which means dropping into coverage as well as pressuring the quarterback. Right now, Addison and Irvin are best-equipped to do so, even if first-round rookie Burns has been a terror as a stand-up pass-rusher. Short and McCoy should see the majority of snaps as down linemen in either formation, with Love and Poe spelling them.
Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson. Reserves: Jermaine Carter Jr., Andre Smith, Jared Norris.
Why? The team’s shift to more 3-4 concepts means Kuechly and Thompson each will be asked to cover half the field. That translates to more coverage responsibilities and slightly different run fits — both of which require the type of athletic linebackers the Panthers have. Carter is a promising young linebacker despite his physical limitations, and the same goes for Smith to a lesser extent. Norris is the epitome of an energy/special teams keeper.
Defensive back (9)
Cornerback: James Bradberry, Donte Jackson. Reserves: Ross Cockrell, Corn Elder.
Nickel: Elder. Reserves/big nickel: Javien Elliott, Rashaan Gaulden.
Safety: Eric Reid, Tre Boston. Reserves: Cockrell, Colin Jones, Gaulden.
Why? This is the position group with the most room to grow. Realistically, the nickel spot is still up for grabs, and Elder is closing the gap Elliott opened up in training camp. Boston’s signing was supposed to solidify the safety position, but he’s been an inconsistent tackler in the preseason and has yet to fully claim that role. Cockrell is the wild card here, as he is probably the team’s best backup option at both safety and outside corner. Gaulden’s stock hit a low against New England, when coach Ron Rivera said he didn’t travel due to a non-performance-based coach’s decision.
Graham Gano (kicker), Michael Palardy (punter), JJ Jansen (long snapper).
Why? Palardy and Jansen are as much of a lock as Cam Newton or Christian McCaffrey. The biggest question mark here is Gano, who still hasn’t kicked in the preseason. Meanwhile, camp leg and “swole kicker” Joey Slye has gone 6-for-6 with two hits from over 50 yards. Rivera has maintained that Gano is still the team’s clear choice, but the longer his injury lingers, the more the questions will remain. Slye may still be able to net the Panthers a late-round pick, which would also make the decision easier.