With the preseason now shortened to just three games as the NFL moves to a 17-game regular season schedule, the players hoping to stake their claim to a spot on the Panthers roster will get their final chance to do so on Friday as the Panthers host the Steelers. While the final preseason game has historically been exclusively a competition for the final roster spots, this year it is also going to be the most extended playing time that the Panthers’ starters get ahead of the regular season. Understandably, a lot of attention has therefore focused on Sam Darnold’s first extended playing time in Carolina, but this is still a crucial opportunity for a lot of players further down the depth chart.
“For a lot of guys this is their last opportunity to show what they can do,” said Panthers’ Head Coach Matt Rhule. “We see a lot of what guys can do in practice and that’s really import to us, we think practice prepares you for the game. But you also have to go deliver on game day … It’s not the only thing, because they have a long body of work, but it’s really their last chance to say ‘Hey, this is what I can do.’ So I’m excited to see our 1s go out there and play but I’m also excited to see those down-the-line guys that are fighting for a spot.”
So, with that in mind, what are some position battles and roster spot competitions that are still up in the air entering the final preseason game, and what needs to change for them to be decided?
Starting Offensive Guards
With Matt Rhule declaring that Jermaine Carter will start at linebacker alongside Shaq Thompson, the only remaining starting battle for the Panthers is who will start at guard. While the Panthers drafted two players in Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown who have a chance to start long-term on the interior, for 2021 it seems to be a three-way battle between John Miller, Pat Elflein and Dennis Daley. As the lone returning starter of the three, Miller likely has the most secure spot, and while he has missed some time with injury in recent weeks, his proven competence when healthy is probably enough to earn him a spot.
This then leaves a fairly direct competition between Elflein and Daley, and while Elflein seems to be the leader in the clubhouse, Rhule has said enough positive things about Daley that it’s hard to rule him out of things. The most notable thing in this battle is that we’ve hardly seen any of these three players play throughout the preseason and so it’s hard to get a grasp of just how close this competition really is. If one of these three struggles significantly on Friday then that could lose them the job, with the starting line-up being as strong an indication as any as to how this competition might end up.
On a roster where a lot has already been decided, this remains the one notable unknown that could become much more known after Friday night.
PJ Walker vs Will Grier
This has certainly been an interesting competition to watch through the first two weeks of the offseason, with the biggest distinguishing characteristic seemingly being who gets to work with the second team. PJ Walker highs are undeniably higher, but Grier has managed to limit the downs more effectively, evidenced by his 6-10 for 31 yards with the third string, compared to Walker’s 1-8 for eight yards. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see whether the Panthers give both playing time with the second string against the Steelers to try and give a more direct comparison between the two.
What makes this battle all the more interesting is that the two players are so different stylistically. Walker excels outside of structure with the arm and mobility to make big plays but less adept at consistent executing inside structure. By contrast, Grier is more of a conventional pocket passer who excels working the ball into vertical windows with touch and keeping the chains moving with the short passing game, but can struggle when forced off-base and is also prone to an unforced interception when pressured.
Neither player has really taken the back-up job and refused to give it back and, while both players have done nice things this preseason, both have also left something to be desired. It is still unclear whether the Panthers will carry two or three quarterbacks during the regular season, and this is a battle that could continue for a while, but if they do cut down to just two quarterbacks then this is very much something that could come down to Friday’s game.
Joey Slye vs Dominik Eberle
With the Panthers bringing in former Utah State kicker Dominik Eberle this week, this has become more of a direct competition but in many ways, this would be viewed as Joey Slye vs himself. By all accounts, Slye has been impressive throughout training camp practices this year and the fact that the Panthers hadn’t had another kicker competing with him during camp was a result of the way in which he had been performing. However, when it has come to the preseason games, Slye has certainly made it difficult for the Panthers to commit to him long-term.
Depth At All Levels Of Defense
When talking about depth we often get focused into one position, ‘Who will be the Panthers’ #4 DT?’ Who’s the #5 LB? Who’s the #6 EDGE?’ but in reality, it is often as much about competition between position groups as competition inside position groups. This is certainly true for the Panthers’ defense this year, as who makes the roster is as much about the overall arithmetic as it is about any one position battle. Clay, Johnston, Christian Miller, Phil Hoskins, Stanley Thomas-Oliver, Kenny Robinson, Sam Franklin, Myles Hartsfield and Nate Chandler are essentially competing with each other for final few defensive roster spots.
The other aspect that sometimes gets lost in the discussions around the final few roster spots is that a major factor for teams is often how likely they think a player is to be claimed off of their practice squad if they do cut them. A strong performance against the preseason therefore not only makes a player more desirable for the Panthers but is also likely to make them harder to stash on the practice squad. While that might not be ideal for the Panthers in all cases, individual players will certainly help their chances of being on an active roster somewhere with a strong performance against the Steelers, on Special Teams as much as on defense.
“For a lot of guys (it’s) Special Teams,” acknowledged Rhule. “You run down you make a big hit, you make a big tackle, you do something impressive. I point out to the guys on Special Teams and defense, just do what Frankie Luvu does, just run down and punch at the ball and get it out and all of a sudden you’ll find your roster spot growing.”
Given AJ Bouye’s two-week suspension, the Panthers might have longer to make a decision on at least one of the defensive backs, but whether the Panthers carry an eleventh defensive lineman, a tenth defensive back or a sixth linebacker would well come to how individuals perform on Friday.
#6 WR Spot
The Panthers’ top five roster spots at receiver seem to be pretty much decided at this point, with any uncertainty about Shi Smith’s spot having been put to rest with strong performances both in camp and the first two preseason games. There are several players in the mix for this spot, with the most likely being Brandon Zylstra, Omar Bayless, Keith Kirkwood and Ishmael Hyman. It is still unclear whether Kirkwood will actually be able to play on Friday as he is still recovering from a concussion incurred from JT Ibe’s illegal hit, but, for the others, Friday is the final audition for what is likely the last receiver spot on the roster.
Zylstra likely is the favorite at this point as a known entity who has played reasonably well when given playing time over the past two years, caching eleven passes for 141 yards, and is a key contributor on special teams. Bayless was a star of camp last year and has made some impressive plays so far in camp, but has struggled to turn that into preseason production through two games. Hyman is another who has received a lot of praise from coaches through training camp but has also failed to turn that into yardage in the preseason. Both Hyman and Bayless have their merits, but they need to prove they can add value compared to Zylstra.
The Panthers have more depth at receiver this year than they have had for a very long time, and that has naturally created a competition for places that just hasn’t been present in years past. This is certainly one of those good problems though.
Teams are still adjusting to the new preseason schedule and though the Panthers plan to play their starters for roughly a half, the second half should be much more like the traditional final preseason game with fringe players trying to do enough to make their roster spots secure. The stepwise cuts this year mean that some of the fat has already been trimmed at this point, but with 27 more cuts yet to come there is still plenty at risk for a lot of these players.
It might not be quite the same as regular season football, but with extended playing time and a lot of jeopardy in terms of roster spots, there’s certainly a lot to look forwards to.
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)