CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers’ final preseason game was not a contest from the win/loss standpoint by the time the game had reached the doldrums of the third quarter. Most of the time on the field was spent by guys trying to earn the last couple of spots on the roster. With cutdowns due at 4 PM on Tuesday, I’ll give my best shot at projecting this final draft of the Panthers’ parchment.
Projected players: Sam Darnold, PJ Walker, Will Grier
Analysis: Darnold had his best moments of the preseason Friday night with a 19-for-25, 162-yard performance and two touchdowns against the Steelers’ backup defense. Not that he needed to do so to start game one, but he quieted some of the doubters by exhibiting competence on the game field. Matt Rhule talked about the invaluable experience of two joint practices each with the Ravens & Colts as about 120 extra game-like reps he can take into the season. PJ Walker entered camp as the leader at the backup QB position, and did nothing to relinquish the gig. He showed progression in his game in the preseason opener agianst Indianapolis, and has really worked on being a more complete quarterback. The best you can say for Will Grier is that he did nothing to lose the position, but it’s not like he did anything to wrestle it away from PJ. In this case, the tie goes to the incumbent, with the Panthers deciding to carry three quarterbacks while still dealing with the potential dangers of COVID.
RUNNING BACK (5)
Projected players: Christian McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard, Spencer Brown, Trenton Cannon, Giovanni Ricci (FB)
Analysis: The first of this is simple, Christian McCaffrey will be the lion’s share of this offense assuming health. Behind him, Chuba Hubbard has looked like the most capable spell guy. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 26 attempts in the preseason, not always running behind the most premier offensive linemen. Spencer Brown earned a spot on this roster partially due to injuries to Rod Smith and Reggie Bonnafon, who the Panthers would like to keep on the practice squad. Giovanni Ricci carves himself into a niche as a Fullback/H-Back/Tight End hybrid to snatch a coveted roster spot at the end of the 53. They characterize Cannon as wide receiver, technically, but he wears a traditional running back number. His main role once again will be on special teams, though he showed an affinity for pass-catching on many occassions during camp.
WIDE RECEIVER (6 + 1 injured)
Projected players: DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Terrace Marshall, Jr., David Moore, Keith Kirkwood, Brandon Zylstra [Shi Smith/INJ]
Analysis: The newly-minted Anderson and Moore flank a staunch group at one of the toughest positions to project on the back end. Marshall unloads a portion of this offense unseen before under Matt Rhule and Joe Brady with his length and vertical ability. David Moore becomes a third down option and the primary option on kickoff and punt returns. Keith Kirkwood had a big special teams play in the final preseason game to go along with a pair of catches sealing an inspiring comeback story. Kirkwood spent most of camp out with a concussion suffered on the infamous hit by JT Ibe. Zylstra got pushed in large part by Shi Smith for a spot on the roster and might be called upon if Smith has to miss some time. The rookie from South Carolina suffered a shoulder injury Friday which Rhule called “significant”. The Panthers wouldn’t be able to get Smith back for the season if they placed him on IR prior to the 53-man cutdown, but can use an injury designation on him after the fact and try and recoup Zylstra or another receiver in his place after Tuesday.
TIGHT END (3)
Projected players: Dan Arnold, Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble
Analysis: It was easy to see the Darnold to Arnold connection early in camp, but it did not manifest itself in a game until Friday. Arnold caught three passes for 25 yards on all three of his targets from the Panthers’ starting QB, and the two hope to provide more highlights at this position than last year. Despite not putting up the numbers on the stat sheet, Ian Thomas has delivered on the promise of the “tremendous offseason” Matt Rhule said the fourth-year man out of Indiana had to have. Tremble showcased his catching ability on many occasions in practice and in games, but his real value comes as a willing and violent blocker.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9)
Projected players: Cam Erving, Pat Elflein, Matt Paradis, John Miller, Taylor Moton, Dennis Daley, Brady Christiansen, Deonte Brown, Trent Scott
Analysis: The position with the least certainty coming into the year has a pretty cut and dry feel to it after a long camp. The first five guys are unquestioned, which means the next question is whether or not the Panthers carry eight or nine linemen. There isn’t a player beyond these nine that deserves to make the roster, and if anyone is on the cut line, it would be the veteran Scott, who had an uneven time in Indianapolis. Elflein’s ability to play both center and guard knocks Sam Tecklenburg out of the picture for the 53, but he could be on the practice squad for the Panthers if he clears waivers.
DEFENSIVE ENDS (4)
Projected players: Brian Burns, Morgan Fox, Yetur Gross-Matos, Marquis Haynes
Analysis: Burns looks to take the biggest step of any rising star on this team with the way he’s looked in the preseason. He’s fast to the ball, with more power than at any point in his career, and was the catalyst for a couple of big plays in both the joint practices and preseason games. Fox’s game has been harder to corral, as he managed just one total tackle in limited game work. Yetur Gross-Matos has looked like he’s started to take the next step in his game, picking up a pair of sacks in preseason action. Marquis Haynes parlayed his marvelous game in Indy, which included sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery, into a spot on the 53-man billing. Christian Miller, who opted out of the 2020 season for COVID reasons, fails to make the team in t his projection with his 2021 return.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES (4)
Projected players: Derrick Brown, DaQuan Jones, Bravvion Roy, Davyion Nixon
Analysis: Brown and Jones appear to be a dynamic duo in the middle, already causing havoc for opposing offensive linemen. Rhule cited Jones’ professionalism in the room who has a great influence on Brown and the other defensive tackles. Roy had four tackles, playing in all three games, but failed to make any standout plays that flashed. Nixon, on the other hand, capped off a tremendous camp with a pair of interceptions in the Panthers’ final day in Spartanburg during joint practice with the Ravens. I have seventh-round pick Phil Hoskins missing the cut, as he spent the early portion of camp on the PUP list, and looked overmatched at times.
Projected players: Shaq Thompson, Jermaine Carter, Jr., Haason Reddick, Frankie Luvu, Julian Stanford, Paddy Fisher
Analysis: Jermaine Carter has been the breakout player in camp as he earned the starting middle linebacker job outright from a guy the team committed $6 million to in the offseason. Haason Reddick showed great strength in individual drills against the Colts and should factor into the Panthers’ renewed pass rush. Frankie Luvu had a stellar finish to camp, delivering bruising hits, including a forced fumble against Baltimore. Matt Rhule, among others, singled out Julian Stanford’s play on multiple occassions throughout camp, and he should contribute on special teams. Fisher should send a thank-you card to now departed linebacker Denzel Perryman, as the trade to the Raiders should open up a spot for him.
CORNERBACKS (5 + 1 suspended)
Projected players: Donte Jackson, Jaycee Horn, Rashaan Melvin, Keith Taylor, Stantley Thomas-Oliver, A.J. Bouye (suspended for two games for PED violation)
Analysis: Jackson looks completely healed from the turf toe injury and Horn looks every bit the part of a first-round corner in the NFL. Melvin had a solid camp, but came up with a groin injury during the Panthers’ final preseason game. With 16 days between the end of the Steelers’ game and kickoff against the Jets, that should be enough time for Melvin to heal unless it’s more serious. Taylor has stuck his nose in some situations not usually seen from a rookie, as he has the willingness to take on all assignments given and the aptitude to handle them. In reality, this is actually a 54-man projection with the suspension of A.J. Bouye allowing the team to add another player. Stantley Thomas-Oliver should get a two-game audition to either earn his way on the team full time or gain employment elsewhere.
Projected players: Jeremy Chinn, Juston Burris, Kenny Robinson, Sam Franklin, Myles Hartsfield
Analysis: Chinn showed on multiple occasions in practices and preseason games that the move to safety will allow him more freedom to be around the football in 2021. Burris had a couple of big crunchers against both Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and he should do more of the same when the lights go on for real. Despite not playing against Indianapolis, Robinson should make this roster along with Franklin, as Rhule has cited both players’ strong camps multiple times this summer. In the department of “get you a guy who can do both”, Hartsfield can play both safety and nickleback while also being a stellar find on special teams.
— Will Palaszczuk (@WilliePStyle) August 28, 2021
Projected players: Ryan Santoso, Joe Charlton, JJ Jansen
Analysis: The end seemed certain for Joey Slye with his missed field goal in the second quarter of the Panthers’ final preseason game. The Panthers surrendered a conditional seventh-rounddraft pick to acquire Santoso, and he gave Carolina no reason to think he’s not worth the risk. Santoso made every kick, and boomed touchbacks on every kickoff but one against Baltimore. Slye proved undependable with his full body of work, and if they kept him on the team, Rhule would have some explaining to do. You can’t afford to have “blind loyalty” in a specialist. Speaking of loyalty, the Panthers will reward it by sticking with the veteran Jansen, who beats out sixth-round draft pick Thomas Fletcher for a spot on the 53-man roster. Fletcher would surely be back with the Panthers on the practice squad if he clears waivers, but it was far from the slam dunk the other direction many thought it would be. Charlton had a sensastional camp booming high and long kicks of 50-plus routinely, with some hangtimes over five and six seconds.
What do you think? Who made the team who shouldn’t have? Who do you think got shafted? We have until 4 PM Tuesday to cross-reference this list. Be sure to chime in on my Twitter account: @WilliePStyle