CHARLOTTE — The one thing we know for sure about this 53-man roster for the Panthers is that it's unconventional.
The other thing we know for sure is that it's going to change, and soon.
For one thing, the Panthers have no kicker, six defensive tackles, and seven wide receivers on the initial list they have to work with after making cuts Tuesday. They also have a quarterback on the roster who won't be able to play for at least a month, so adjustments are coming.
Many parts are going to move in the ensuing days, as they put together the roster which will take the field on Sept. 11 against the Browns.
Some of these guys could end up traded (the Panthers have already made two deals the day before the deadline, adding Laviska Shenault Jr. and getting a draft pick for Dennis Daley), while quarterback Sam Darnold's injury leaves them thin at quarterback for the first few weeks.
It's a lot to take in after Tuesday's moves, so let's go position-by-position through the initial (not anywhere close to final) 53-man roster.
Quarterbacks (3): Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, PJ Walker.
It's reasonable to expect that the Panthers will clear a roster spot soon by putting Darnold on short-term IR (since head coach Matt Rhule said this week that Darnold would miss "at least four weeks" with a high ankle sprain).
And until or unless they make a move (and Rhule didn't rule it out), that means they'll roll into the regular season with Mayfield and Walker as his backup.
Running backs (3): Christian McCaffrey, D'Onta Foreman, Chuba Hubbard.
This is a tight group, and they complement each other well. Of course McCaffrey's ability dictates that he get a lot of work, but Foreman had a good preseason, and gives them a bigger back who has proven to be effective in short-yardage situations. Hubbard still has home-run speed, and because of the way the roster fell, will likely be a key part of their special teams this year.
This is a group of guys that each play individual roles well, without any one of them being a dominant all-around player. Thomas and Ricci are both excellent blockers, and Ricci is a top special teams player. Sullivan is perhaps the surprise to many, but coaches love his combination of size and receiving ability. He had a fumble in the preseason, but that doesn't obscure (to them) a larger body of work. When they talk about developing players, he's the kind of guy they're referring to.
This is more than you usually want to carry into the regular season, especially since there's not an established special teams coverage player (like Brandon Zylstra) among them. Roberts' return ability is rare, so the choice was made to try to upgrade that phase by keeping the veteran. Trading for Shenault gives them another big body, because other than Moore, the rest of these guys run a little lean. It will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo (who was in Jacksonville when the Jaguars picked Shenault in the second round of the 2020 draft) uses Shenault, since he also has the ability to line up in the backfield and in the slot. It's a more versatile offensive group, and we'll see how they make up for the loss of Zylstra at other positions.
The Panthers had sufficient depth on the offensive line that they were able to trade a reserve (Dennis Daley) for future draft picks. That is an actual sentence that was written in the Year of Our Lord 2022, roughly 365 days after the Panthers embarked on an adventure that saw them use 14 different starting offensive lines in 17 games.
This group is more talented on the top line (with the additions of Ekwonu and Corbett), and dependably deeper. Of the four guys who aren't starting now, the Panthers have three guys who started 35 games last season (and 134 in their careers), along with a rookie in Mays who can play four positions and could end up starting at center in a few years.
The hope is that Ekwonu and Christensen bond quickly, and become the kind of left side of the line the Panthers haven't enjoyed since the days of Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton. It's early yet, and Ekwonu will have to continue to develop as a pass-blocker to reach that level, but the possibility is there.
Defensive linemen (10): Ends Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos, Marquis Haynes Sr., Amaré Barno, Tackles Derrick Brown, Matt Ioannidis, Bravvion Roy, Daviyon Nixon, Phil Hoskins, Marquan McCall.
This is probably the group you raise an eyebrow at, because six defensive tackles are more than a team reasonably needs. But this is also where we remind you that this roster is not a finished product, and other teams are always looking for talent on the line.
McCall, an undrafted rookie from Kentucky, had a solid camp and earned the notice of coaches. He has the kind of wide-body frame the Panthers didn't otherwise have.
They're running a little short here as well, and it wasn't easy parting ways undrafted rookie Arron Mosby, who has multi-position versatility. Linebacker Julian Stanford (who led them in special teams tackles last year) was placed on IR Tuesday.
The starting group is more stable this year, and having Littleton as a backup and a guy who contributes on special teams is practically a luxury. He got a lot of work this summer as Thompson recovered from a knee surgery, and did not look out of place with the first defense.
Luvu is getting an expanded role this year, and he's always brought energy on and off the field. Seeing how he holds up to a larger workload will be interesting.
Defensive backs (10): Cornerbacks Jaycee Horn, Donte Jackson, CJ Henderson, Keith Taylor Jr., Stantley Thomas-Oliver III; Safeties Jeremy Chinn, Xavier Woods, Myles Hartsfield, Sam Franklin Jr., Sean Chandler.
There aren't many teams in the league that could let a player such as Stephon Gilmore walk in free agency without second thoughts. But with the development of Henderson (who had one of the best camps of any player here), they're solid there with Horn and Jackson alongside him. Woods has been a find as well, and his ability to communicate across the defense will help Chinn in a number of ways.
The backup safeties are more situational players than defensive reserves. Hartsfield can play nickel (and many other roles, befitting his two-way pedigree from college), while Chandler and Franklin are both core special teamers.
Obviously they're going to add someone here to replace the injured Zane Gonzalez. They brought in a bunch of kickers Monday for tryouts, and they'll bring more in over the next few days to look for a solution.
The injury changes the outlook for a unit that made great strides from last year, when kickers and punters were rolling in on what seemed like a weekly basis. Gonzalez had stabilized the kicking game, so losing him was a blow. But with Hekker's ability to punt and pass (trick plays are very much a part of the game now), and Jansen's everyday excellence, whoever walks in will at least have comfortable surroundings.