The Panthers are now slowly edging closer and closer to their initial 53-man roster, with the deadline to cut down being 4pm ET on Tuesday. While many expect the Panthers to be active on the waiver wire following the deadline, the initial roster will likely be very close to the one the Panthers take into the opening game of the season against the Jets.
At this point, the Panthers have already cut down to 71 and one of the more contentious battles of the offseason has already been decided with Joey Slye’s release being the inevitable conclusions. However, with plenty still to be decided regarding those final eighteen cuts, we have decided to take our best shot at predicting the Panthers’ initial 53-man roster.
So here it is.
Quarterbacks: Sam Darnold and PJ Walker
Sam Darnold is going to make the roster, the only question is whether the Panthers will carry two quarterbacks or three, and if they do cut down who will make it as the #2. At this point, the first of those questions is pretty close to a toss-up and will likely be decided by the arithmetic at other positions more than the play of either Walker or Will Grier.
With that being said, when Rhule spoke to the media on Saturday, he did indicate that they felt less obliged to keep three quarterbacks than a year ago and with the numbers pretty tight at tight end, running back and receiver, it seems ever so slightly more likely that they keep two quarterbacks than three.
While Grier and Walker have played to very similar levels this preseason, even if they have very different games stylistically, the fact that Walker was given the nod to work with the second team against the Steelers indicates that ultimately the pecking order hasn’t changed. Grier has certainly shown improvement this preseason, but he probably hasn’t done enough to stick around in what is likely to be one of the tougher calls this week.
Running Backs: Christian McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard and Spencer Brown
The first two names shouldn’t come as any surprise at all, but what the Panthers chose to do beyond that is going to be interesting to see. If everybody is healthy, I think this comes down to one of Reggie Bonnafon and Rodney Smith, but with both players struggling with injury it’s almost impossible to know what the team will do.
If either of Bonnafon or Smith is expected to be healthy for week one or two then I think they get the nod here, and there is always the possibility that they might keep one on the initial roster with a view to placing them on short-term IR under the expectation that Spencer Brown clears waivers.
Ultimately, however, if neither Smith nor Bonnafon are going to be healthy in the immediate future then Spencer Brown has made by far the most significant impression of the other running backs on the roster this preseason, highlighted by his touchdown run against the Steelers.
As with a couple of other calls on the roster, this comes down to health as much as anything and, right now, Spencer Brown is the healthiest option.
Tight Ends: Dan Arnold, Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble and Giovanni Ricci
The first three names on this list should be pretty uncontroversial with Arnold and Thomas splitting first team reps against the Steelers and third-round pick Tremble likely a sure-thing to make the roster even if his playing time is still to be determined.
What is left to be decided is whether the Panthers carry more than three tight ends, and if they do who the extra tight end(s) are.
There has been some suggestion that the Panthers could ultimately carry as many as five tight ends, with Colin Thompson being the likely addition, but that is going to be hard to achieve from a numbers point of view even if they do view Ricci as more of a fullback. That likely leaves a fairly direct competition between Thompson and Ricci.
While Ricci didn’t enter training camp as somebody expected to make the roster, he has certainly impressed the coaches with his versatility and the fact that he was taking reps with the first team against the Steelers should be an indication of just how highly he is rated inside the organization.
Matt Rhule has been insistent that he wants the right fullback and not just any fullback if he is going to keep one on the roster but, given how much run Ricci has got in recent weeks, Ricci seems to be qualifying as the former.
Wide Receiver: DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Terrace Marshall Jr, Shi Smith, David Moore, CJ Saunders, Trenton Cannon
The top three names should come as absolutely no surprise to anybody and, while there is some chance that Shi Smith could be placed on short term IR due to the injury he suffered against the Steelers, there should be little doubt about him making the roster.
The final three spots are a little more unclear but, while there is probably a reasonable discussion to be had about whether Cannon is more of a running back or a receiver, he is ultimately going to earn his spot on special teams and Matt Rhule certainly continues to hold him in high esteem, so he gets the nod here.
Both David Moore and CJ Saunders have taken reps as returner this preseason and it seems almost certain that at least one will make the roster. There is a chance that one gets sacrificed for numbers at another position, especially if Shi Smith isn’t placed on IR, but here we have both making the cut. If it does come down to one or the other, it seems as though there is a real chance that Saunders could get in over Moore.
Offensive Line: Cameron Erving, Pat Elflein, Matt Paradis, John Miller, Taylor Moton, Dennis Daley, Brady Christensen, Deonte Brown and Trent Scott
The Panthers might look to carry even more than these nine, but it’s really hard to see any of these nine not making the roster, or anybody making the roster over any of them.
While there is still some uncertainty as to whether Daley or Elflein will start, but the starters will come from the top six and as both Christensen and Brown have played well in the preseason it is hard to see both not being part of the longer-term plan on the offensive line. Trent Scott might not be somebody the Panthers want to be seeing the field in an ideal world, but there is clearly a lot of respect for him among the coaches, so his spot seems fairly secure.
The only real question here is whether Sam Tecklenburg makes the roster as a tenth offensive lineman, as he is the other player who has spent extended time playing with the second team. With Pat Elflein having center flexibility the Panthers could well opt to keep just the nine offensive linemen, and whether they do or not could well come down to numbers elsewhere, but if they do it is going to be Tecklenburg in all likelihood.
Defensive Interior: Derrick Brown, DaQuan Jones, Bravvion Roy and Daviyon Nixon
The first two names here are locked-in as the starters when the Panthers opt for a four-man front, and the questions behind them are once again about numbers and then order of preference.
While Phil Hoskins had a pretty strong preseason, especially against the Colts, he is the most likely to be the odd man out as Nixon is both the more prized asset long-term and also the one with the more unique sill set among the four. Unless the Panthers feel that Hoskins is already ahead of 2020 sixth-round pick Roy then it seems likely that he will only make the roster if the Panthers carry five defensive tackles, which seems unlikely.
Edge Rushers: Brian Burns, Haason Reddick, Frankie Luvu, Marquis Haynes, Morgan Fox and Yetur Gross-Matos
With the Panthers looking to play more multiple fronts and get as many pass rushers as possible on the field on passing downs, they are going to inevitably carry more EDGE players than they have in recent years. The real question is just how many they can justify keeping from what has been arguably the strongest position group throughout the preseason.
Burns, Reddick, Fox and Gross-Matos are all guaranteed spots, and while marquis Haynes might be another candidate for a spot on the short-term IR, both he and Frankie Luvu seem fairly safe as well, with Rhule going as far as to describe Luvu as a template for defensive players looking to make the roster.
This means that the player who is most likely to be on the outside looking in is Christian Miller, as while he has played well during the preseason it is going to be hard for the Panthers to keep a seventh EDGE player. If they can find a way to do so, then there will likely be interest in keeping Miller who has taken a step after opting out of the 2020 season.
Linebacker: Shaq Thompson, Jermaine Carter, Julian Stanford and Clay Johnston
It seems almost certain at this point that the Panthers are going to claim a linebacker off waivers from somewhere. Thompson and Carter are locked-in as the starters and special teams star Stanford likely gets the nod as well, but the depth beyond that is hard to choose between in a bad way.
Johnston has been the most impressive of the remaining players throughout OTAs, training camp and the preseason and so he gets the nod here, but the Panthers are very likely to either add to this group or replace one or both of Stanford and Johnston as other teams start to cut down.
With the number of EDGEs they have who can drop into coverage and some bigger safeties in Chinn and Franklin the Panthers have much less need for conventional linebackers than they did under Rivera, but this is a group of slim pickings outside the starters, not helped by the recent trade of Denzel Perryman to the Raiders for a sixth-round pick.
Cornerback: Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson, Rashaan Melvin, Myles Hartsfield. Stantley Thomas-Oliver and Keith Taylor (AJ Bouye suspended)
The Panthers effectively get to delay their decision at corner by a couple of weeks with AJ Bouye’s suspension and, while Horn and Jackson appear to be the unquestioned starters, the depth chart beyond that is a little murkier. Myles Hartsfield emerged as the primary nickel towards the end of last season and is likely to compete with Melvin for that role through the first two weeks. Though it’s not yet clear who will win that particular competition, it seems likely that both will make the roster.
It also seems likely that rookie Keith Taylor, who has impressed throughout camp but has struggled recently with a shoulder injury. He is yet another player who could be placed on IR of some sort, as his value is unlikely to be what he can offer over the first few weeks of the season. The question is whether the Panthers can justify carrying a sixth cornerback. A sixth cornerback that would almost certainly be Stantley Thomas-Oliver.
Thomas-Oliver has really taken a step in his second season in Carolina, having only converted to the position from receiver during his college career, and has seen extended playing time during the preseason where he has played well on the whole. It is likely going to be hard for him to be sure of his place once Bouye returns from suspension but with Hartsfield having the flexibility to play some safety as well, it seems reasonable that he might sneak onto the 53 as a sixth corner.
Safety: Jeremy Chinn, Juston Burris, Sam Franklin, Sean Chandler and Kenny Robinson
Jeremy Chinn is going to make the roster, and Burris appears to have secured his starting spot from a year ago but what happens beyond them is a little unclear. Sam Franklin made a promising impression as a rookie last year and is the most logical option as a back-up to Chinn with some ability to play linebacker and that, combined with his ability to contribute on special teams, make him the prime option as the #3 safety. The real question then becomes whether there is space for both Chandler and Robinson on the roster.
Chandler has made a name for himself during camp with a number of impressive plays against both the run and the pass and, while he hasn’t been able to have quite the same success during the preseason games, he is arguably the most proven of the back-up safeties on the roster. Robinson is yet another candidate to be placed on short-term IR, and while there is still quite a lot of growth needed before he can be seriously considered for a major role, the second-year player is still just 22 and has made real strides from a year ago.
The Panthers might not carry all five throughout the season but all five make the initial roster here.
Specialists: Ryan Santoso, Joe Charlton and JJ Jansen
The Panthers could claim yet another kicker off waivers if they see fit, but Santoso has won the initial battle with Joey Slye and so the only question here is between Jansen and sixth-round pick Thomas Fletcher. Fletcher might be the future of the position in Carolina, but he has been less consistent than Jansen in camp and it would be hard for them to justify passing up on one of the best in the NFL for a rookie who is still adjusting to the NFL game.
With so many players as potential short-term IR candidates and a significant need for linebacker depth, the Panthers’ roster at 4:01 ET on Tuesday might be quite different from the one that they carry into the Jets game. That being said, this is our best guess at what the Panthers’ roster will look like at 4:01 ET on Tuesday and, while there are still some areas of relative weakness, this looks to be a notably stronger roster than a year ago.
Only time will tell for sure.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)