DT Nick Hayden is considered one of the players on the bubble after the addition of Kentwan Balmer. (AP Photo)
CHARLOTTE – For Cam Newton, Thursday night is one last chance to impress coach Ron Rivera before being named the team’s regular season starter. For many others on the Carolina Panthers 80-man roster it’s their last audition before the team trims its roster to 53 players by Saturday's 6 p.m. deadline.
Although coach Ron Rivera admits he already has a pretty good idea who’ll make the roster and who has a date with the dreaded Turk, he said there are still a few spots up for grabs.
"Those guys that are all in the heated battles for the second and third positions, we'd love to see somebody step up and really play well," Rivera said. "I think it's time some of those guys separate themselves, and a lot of those guys will get some extended playing time and be given the opportunity to do that."
Carolina’s starters, including right tackle Jeff Otah and Greg Hardy, who’ll see their first action of the preseason, are only expected to play a series or two before giving way to the backups.
One of the most interesting battles is at wide receiver where Wallace Wright, David Clowney and Charly Martin are vying for one or possibly two roster spots, depending the status of rookie Kealoha Pilares.
"For the younger guys and for older guys who have been around, it's time to shine," Wright said. “You have to go in there and show the coaching staff what you can do."
Along with wide receiver, Rivera said he’ll be paying close attention to how the backup defensive linemen fare after two rough outings against Miami and Cincinnati.
Cornerback is another spot that’s up in the air.
Although the team is expected to add one or two guys after Saturday's cuts, players like undrafted rookie Kendric Burney from North Carolina are trying to convince the coaching staff there’s no need to go outside the organization for help.
"I'm looking forward to Thursday, because I should be able to go out there and actually play with no fear at all, not thinking about cuts," Burney said. "I'm just going to go out and play and just be me. If I do that, I think I should be all right."
As for Newton, he still hasn’t officially been named the starter for Arizona, although that’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.
"With that first bunch, I want to see good communication, good operations and then get them off the field," Rivera said. "With the young guys, you're looking for progress. You think about where they were two or three weeks ago and then you try to see where they are now. The Steelers are a Super Bowl-caliber team, and you want to be able to come out and match them. If you can make a really good showing - and I'm not just saying show up, but I'm talking about going out and playing with these guys - then you've shown progress."
Newton isn’t viewing the Steelers game as a night off.
“There are no such things as throw-away games for us, especially what we were given this past year as far as the lockout is concerned,” Newton said. “Every time we have an opportunity to come out and get some work in we’re all for it.”
Said Rivera: “We would like to see things obviously function where things are going well; we're communicating; we're doing the things that we're supposed to. That's probably the biggest thing that we want to take from it. I'm not concerned about the outcome obviously; I'm concerned about the way we play more so than anything else. With that first bunch, I want to see good communication, good operations and then get them off the field.”
PLAYERS ON THE BUBBLE:
DL Nick Hayden/Andre Neblett/Ugo Chinasa: Hayden is the most experienced player at defensive tackle with 13 career starts, but that doesn’t mean he’s a lock to make the roster. Neblett made it as an undrafted rookie last year but faces an uphill battle, while Chinasa has quietly impressed some on the coachign staff.
WR Wallace Wright/Charly Martin/David Clowney: You can make arguments to keep any one of these guys, so it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out after Thursday night. Wright’s abilities on special teams might give him an edge over the other two.
CB C.J. Wilson/Chevis Jackson/Kendric Burney: Who knows what the Panthers do at cornerback? There’s a good chance the starting cornerback isn’t even on the roster and the team could add two players at this spot when others come available.
LB Thomas Williams/Lawrence Wilson/James Williams: He’s a sixth-round pick out Connecticut, but has been outplayed by Thomas Williams so far in the preseason for the seventh and possibly final linebacker spot. James Williams is just now getting healthy.
OL Byron Bell/Ryan Pugh/Bryant Browning: Look for Mackenzy Bernadeau, Lee Ziemba and C.J. Davis to probably make it as backups (Garry Williams is starting at right guard for now), which probably leaves one more spot for a guy like Bell, Pugh or Browning to seize on an opportunity and play well.