CHARLOTTE – There's an open spot where Robbie Anderson lined up in Carolina's offense before Monday's trade to Arizona.
Now the Panthers' receivers see an opportunity to make something out of his old reps.
Carolina's offense needs a spark anywhere, especially in the passing game, where they're ranked 29th in the league and averaging 6.3 yards per attempt. They put up a season-low 110 passing yards from quarterbacks PJ Walker and Jacob Eason last week in Los Angeles. And with injuries to Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield, Carolina will likely be with the same signal callers for Week 7 against Tampa Bay.
Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said the staff has confidence in the Panthers' receiving corps, with Shi Smith, Terrace Marshall Jr., and the pending return of Laviska Shenault Jr. from a hamstring injury adding to starter DJ Moore.
Interim coach Steve Wilks said the staff would be giving all of their receivers an evaluation throughout the week of practice to see who will take Anderson's spot, and McAdoo said he's focusing on putting his receivers in good situations.
"There are only so many guys in a room, right? So they're all going to have opportunities to go out and contribute in practice," McAdoo said Thursday. "(We'll) just take a look at it and see how they fit into the plan. You want to make sure you put guys in the position to be successful. Sometimes you have different personnel groups, and put them out there in a situation, or give them a route or concept they have a lot of confidence in as a player."
The first place Wilks looks for consistency in the Panthers' wideout room is Moore. Wilks praised how Moore behaved like a team player against the Rams, blocking for running back Christian McCaffrey and maintaining a good attitude even though he caught just three balls in Los Angeles.
But if the Panthers want to improve in the passing game, they will want to see the version of Moore who tallied three consecutive 1,100-yard receiving seasons from 2019-21.
Through the first six weeks of this season, Moore has caught just 20 passes for 204 yards and one touchdown. He hasn't let that get him down, though.
"I just do it; I'm just laid back," Moore said when asked how he keeps himself from growing discouraged with a lack of production. "(I'm) not going to get too worked up about things I can't control, like play calling and things like that. (I) just go out there and execute the play that's called."
Behind Moore, who has gotten the most targets this season of any receiver, and Anderson, the second-most targeted wideout before his departure, there's Shi Smith.
The 2021 sixth-rounder from South Carolina impressed coaches and teammates with a flashy training camp, but he has since gone relatively quiet throughout the season. He struggled with injuries throughout an insignificant rookie season.
This year, Smith has nearly doubled his targets (11 to 20 across six games in both seasons), but his overall production has remained virtually identical, catching six passes for 104 yards in 2021 and eight passes for 105 yards in 2022. He still hasn't scored his first NFL touchdown.
And another 2021 draftee is vying for reps in the Panthers' rotation – Marshall, the second-rounder from LSU.
Marshall said he felt confident after logging his first targets and receptions in Week 5 against the 49ers. That week, he caught all four passes thrown to him for 30 yards, but he missed on the one pass thrown his way against the Rams. He didn't play in Week 1, didn't log a target in Week 2, and was inactive for Weeks 3 and 4.
But Marshall has been logging extra time after practice with receivers coach Joe Dailey, catching extra passes, running extra routes, and working on hand-eye coordination. He has also been rotating with the first-team offense since Anderson's departure.
"I'm feeling blessed," Marshall said. "All glory to God for him opening doors for me. It's the same process every week. I'm ready to go out and play."
Wilks and McAdoo have each praised Marshall's performance in practice throughout the week. McAdoo said Marshall would be getting "a lot of opportunities moving forward" after getting closer to the form he showed before the season.
"He showed a lot of productivity in OTAs; at training camp, he had an injury that set him back," McAdoo said. "He's a young player, second-year guy. … And when you have those setbacks, it may take you a little bit to get back in the swing of things. But he's a tremendous talent. He works at it – a high-character guy, so we're just going to keep coaching him and giving him opportunities to shine."
Shenault has played in two games as a Panther but flashed onto the scene in his Carolina debut, posting a memorable 90-yard day off two catches, including a 67-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception in the Panthers' lone win over the Saints.
Shenault injured his hamstring during the Arizona game in Week 4 and has sat out the past two games, but he returned to practice this week and expects to play against Tampa Bay.
"(I bring) the versatility part of it, just turning something small into something big," Shenault said. "Sometimes you need those types of plays to happen just to get things turned around. I'm trying to bring that every chance I get. I'm trying to make the most of it."
Wilks and the Panthers will continue to look for the spark to ignite their passing offense, with opportunities for the receivers to catch onto.
"The guys that perform well in practice – those are guys we've built confidence and trust in – those are guys that will play," Wilks said. "I'm very pleased with that group. I think they work hard. I think Joe (Dailey) does a great job with them. We've just got to make sure that we, as coaches, starting with myself, are putting these guys in position to be successful."
– McAdoo said he trusts PJ Walker, despite a lack of downfield passing attempts in Los Angeles.
Walker mainly threw behind the line of scrimmage against the Rams, completing his first start this season with 60 yards on 10-of-16 passing with no touchdowns.
McAdoo admitted the "vision" he and the Panthers' staff had for last week's game didn't go as planned, but he said they hoped to build upon what they learned with Walker under center.
"I do trust PJ; I want to make sure I make that perfectly clear," McAdoo said. "He's had some success in this league, and he had a good week of practice last week and had a better week of practice this week so far."
– Sam Darnold continued to throw passes Thursday, designated to return to practice after a preseason ankle sprain landed him on injured reserve in August.
Baker Mayfield also returned to practice, participating in a limited capacity less than two weeks after leaving the 49ers game with an ankle injury. He did not participate in Wednesday's practice with full pads.
Wilks said Wednesday the plan would be to move forward with practice squad quarterback Jacob Eason in a backup role behind Walker.
Bozeman said he's prepared as the starter since he arrived from Baltimore, where he started in 48 games across the past three seasons.
The Panthers have trotted out the same starting five linemen (Ikem Ekwonu, Brady Christensen, Elflein, Austin Corbett, and Taylor Moton) each week of the season. Moton landed on Thursday's injury report, limited due to a knee injury.
– Defensive coordinator Al Holcomb said he was "hopeful" the Panthers would return cornerback Jaycee Horn and linebacker Frankie Luvu for Tampa Bay. Horn (ribs) and Luvu (shoulder) have been limited participants in practice for Wednesday and Thursday.
Carolina's defense was ravaged by injuries both before and after the Rams game and entered this week with a long list on the injury report, including cornerback Donte Jackson (ankle), who hasn't participated in practice this week, defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis (neck/concussion protocol), who missed Thursday, and linebacker Cory Littleton (groin), who has been limited throughout the week. Safety Jeremy Chinn is about halfway through the minimum four weeks he must spend on injured reserve with a hamstring.
"It's really next-man-up," Holcomb said when asked about maintaining rhythm on the defense amid injuries. "Coaches on the sideline really have to help, at that point, assist in terms of getting the right personnel in the game. My focus is on calling the game and making sure that (when) the defense gets a call, they can execute and operate at a high level."
Check out the best photos from Thursday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Buccaneers this weekend.