CHARLOTTE, NC (Jourdan Rodrigue/Charlotte Observer) - Changes are a'comin'.
Few, if any, of the Carolina Panthers' starters will play on Thursday night in Pittsburgh in the exhibition finale against the Steelers. The bulk of the team is preparing to host the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1.
But the final preseason game will help solidify some tightly contested spots ahead of the Sept. 1 cutdowns, when the roster must be trimmed from 90 players to 53 players.
"If you look at the back part of each position group, there are two or three guys that deserve an opportunity," said head coach Ron Rivera on Monday. "We've got a lot of good football players...This is a big game for a lot of those young men and I've been trying to stress that for these guys. Hopefully they understand just how important the opportunity is for them to get out there and show their best."
Here are the toughest decisions facing Rivera this week:
Backups Taylor Heinicke and Garrett Gilbert will split Thursday's game (reserve quarterback Kyle Allen will also likely see some time), and it's each quarterback's last chance to get an edge.
By the end of Week 1, the Panthers will likely have just two quarterbacks on the active roster: Cam Newton and either Heinicke or Gilbert.
But it's possible that the Panthers initially keep three quarterbacks, so that one can be used as a part of the trade capital for a position of need, such as the offensive line.
Remember receiver Kaelin Clay? The Panthers kept six receivers, including Clay, on the initial 53-man. But hours later, they traded Clay and a 2019 seventh-round pick to Buffalo for Kevon Seymour because they needed depth at cornerback.
The Panthers have a room full of talented running backs who flashed well during the preseason.
Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson are the starting two, in that order. Cameron Artis-Payne, who has been with Carolina since 2015, is competing with free agent acquisition Kenjon Barner for the No. 3 spot.
Because the Panthers will almost certainly keep second-year fullback Alex Armah, it's likely a fourth running back draws the short straw come cuts day. Armah will also affect the number of tight ends Carolina decides to keep, Rivera indicated on Monday.
But as with the quarterbacks, initially keeping an extra running back could be useful as trade capital.
Defensive back depth
Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson has essentially locked in his starting spot as No. 2 cornerback opposite James Bradberry.
And veteran Captain Munnerlyn will remain the team's starter in the nickel.
But depth behind each player is still very much up for grabs. Corner Kevon Seymour was inconsistent in the beginning of the preseason, but had a solid training camp and has been in the team's system for a year. Lorenzo Doss has flashed his speed and ability to make plays on the ball. After missing the entire 2017 season with an injury, second-year cornerback Corn Elder has a pick and a pass breakup in the past two weeks. He also has the advantage of versatility, because he can play nickel behind Munnerlyn.
The Panthers will likely keep nine defensive backs, and safeties Mike Adams, Da'Norris Searcy and Rashaan Gaulden are locks, as are Jackson, Bradberry and Munnerlyn. Colin Jones is also likely a lock because of his versatility into the big nickel package and ability on special teams.
Safeties Dezmen Southward and Demetrious Cox, defensive back Alex Carter and cornerback LaDarius Gunter are all in the hunt as well.
Carolina's offensive line depth is concerning. Because of knee injuries, the team is missing two locked-in starters in left tackle Matt Kalil and right tackle Daryl Williams. Both are week-to-week.
The Panthers also lack key depth at guard, with veteran Amini Silatolu recovering from a meniscus tear (he is day to day). Guard/tackle Jeremiah Sirles pulled his hamstring during the first series of Carolina's third preseason game against New England on Friday night and did not practice on Monday.
So not only will the Panthers have to hit the market for a serviceable lineman once it's flooded post-cuts, they also have a couple of tough decisions to make regarding their injured players.
It's possible that Silatolu is ready for Week 1 against Dallas. But Carolina must figure out whether to start the year with Williams on injured reserve, thus opening up another roster spot for a guard or a tackle. Williams could be one of two players eligible to return from injured reserve after eight weeks.
Williams' rehabilitation is going well, but Kalil's injury makes things murky despite second-year guard/tackle Taylor Moton's clear promise at left tackle. Williams has more experience at left tackle than Moton, but is a more natural fit on the right.
But consider this, too: If the Panthers bring back Williams and Silatolu as starters, they'd be starting two offensive linemen who had knee injuries that did not get surgically repaired.
The last defensive end
Carolina's defensive tackle and end rotations are essentially locked in at this point.
Julius Peppers will rotate with Wes Horton on one end, while Mario Addison will start on the opposite side. Rookie speedball defensive end Marquis Haynes will come in for Addison, and will also be used in the team's "Joker" subpackage because he can drop into coverage.
Defensive tackles Kawann Short and Dontari Poe will start on the interior, backed up by Vernon Butler and Kyle Love.
It would appear that the last spot is between second year defensive ends Daeshon Hall and Bryan Cox Jr.
After performing well both as a rusher and against the run in last week's game, and getting in on some live action last fall, Cox Jr. has the edge.