The evaluation process that culminates with the finalization of the 53-man roster is a long one. Training camp and the preseason give the coaches and front office a lot of tape to analyze, and by the time the fourth preseason game rolls around, most of the choices are clear-cut.
But this year, with his team set to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Thursday's preseason finale at Heinz Field, head coach Ron Rivera admits the decisions to come aren't all that straightforward.
"This final cut we make – no pun intended – is not very clear-cut," Rivera said. "We're going to have to really look at a lot of guys. (General manager) Dave (Gettleman) and I have talked extensively and have gone through a couple of exercises already, and every time, something is different.
"We're going to take a really good, hard look at these guys. Thursday is very important."
Rivera wasn't willing to divulge how much, if any, the starters will play against the Steelers. Regardless, it won't be long at all before those fighting to remain on the roster enter the game for good.
"There are some really good battles going on at different positions, and guys are fighting for those last few spots," Rivera said.
How many wide receivers will the Panthers keep? How many linebackers or running backs? The players will determine the answers to those questions with their body of work in conjunction with their individual performances in Pittsburgh.
"The numbers are not set by position," Rivera said. "That will be part of the discussion too as we go through and pick our football team.
"A lot of these guys deserve an opportunity, but we're running out of space."
Running out of space and running out of time.
Better make the most of the opportunity Thursday.
"It is a make-or-break situation for several of these young men," Rivera said, "and hopefully they make it even tougher on us."
View practice photos from the fourth week of the preseason.