FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Shi Smith left the Panthers' final joint practice with New England in an upbeat mood.
The second-year wide receiver said he's in a good, confident place Wednesday. His demeanor after another day of flashing potential as a candidate for both slot receiver and returner roles was positive, and practically infectious.
"I'll say I'm in good spirits," Smith said as he walked off the practice field in Foxborough. "(I'm) staying ready so I won't have to get ready."
Smith and his fellow wide receivers on Carolina's current 85-man roster are competing for a diminishing number of roles in a room that's been growing in talent – and as a result, competition.
Competition has been a theme throughout Panthers' training camp, with a particularly large number of eyes fixed on spots along the offensive line (which is sorted out for the imminent future) and in the quarterback room, of course.
But the race for a place at wide receiver certainly warrants some attention. Smith and Rashard Higgins, both receivers vying for their spots, are among some of the preseason's stars.
There are locks, such as DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson. Last year's second-rounder Terrace Marshall Jr. has flashed big-play potential, despite a nagging hamstring injury from training camp that kept him sidelined Wednesday. Andre Roberts is a veteran return specialist with four Pro Bowls on his resume, and seems likely to be here.
Should the Panthers keep two more wideouts, that creates room for players like Smith and Higgins. And injuries left the room in a thinner state from camp through the two joint practices with the Patriots.
In Wednesday's practice, Anderson nursed a quad injury and Roberts showed up in a red jersey to indicate he was also dealing with an injury. Marshall continued to watch from the sidelines. Moore returned as full capacity in New England, but he was inactive for Carolina's first preseason game at Washington and wore a green jersey in practices after camp broke at Spartanburg.
Those situations have left room for Smith and Higgins to continue making waves, and the two aren't giving up their shots.
For Smith, it includes taking reps behind Roberts in the return game. Head coach Matt Rhule complimented Smith's ability as a kick returner after the preseason game at Washington, where Smith took a kickoff 41 yards to help set up the Panthers' game-winning field goal drive.
Smith is also building a connection with quarterback Baker Mayfield, who he connected with twice in the Panthers' preseason victory at the Commanders – both on third down conversions – for 19 and 15 yards.
Smith's chemistry with Mayfield continued to build during joint practice, when he went back-to-back again with the quarterback in a team period.
"It's been good," Smith said on his budding connection with Mayfield. "I'm out there doing my job, and he's just finding me. I'm getting open, and I'm making the plays."
The main duty for Smith is to stay healthy, and the 23-year-old said he's been taking to self-care with dips in the hot tub and massages. He's prioritizing keeping himself on the field even as he takes hard blows in practice.
While Smith buds with potential, the 27-year-old Higgins brings a veteran presence to the room.
He also brings an iconic celebration, when the wideout nicknamed "Hollywood" rolls out the red carpet in the end zone.
The Panthers got to see it in a touchdown grab from Sam Darnold against Washington, where Higgins caught Carolina's lone receiving touchdown of the game.
"He's a veteran player," Rhule said after the first preseason game. "He made a lot of plays when we needed him to."
While he's making connections with Darnold, it's obvious Higgins has had plenty of time to develop a connection with Mayfield at quarterback too.
The two played together through four seasons at Cleveland, and moments throughout training camp have shown that they're setting up to pick up where they left off.
"I've been with Baker for five years – it was a hell of a time," Higgins said. "Baker's a good quarterback. He has a lot of leadership. When I got with Sam, he has the same type of capabilities. They both want to win."
But even as plays come together for both Smith and Higgins, they haven't been the only receivers making noise through the preseason.
Back in Spartanburg, C.J. Saunders caught nearly everything thrown his way before suffering a quad strain that'll likely keep him out for the remainder of the preseason. Brandon Zylstra has demonstrated his value, particularly on special teams, an area which Rhule has placed emphasis upon. Utah State rookie Derek Wright has even made some plays in practice, and he received a shoutout from Rhule in a postgame press conference after the preseason win over the Commanders.
The state of the room is competitive, which is how the Panthers would want it to be.
And for players like Higgins, treating every practice like a game – going in with full intensity and effort – is how he'll continue to attack competition at his position.
"Go out there and give it your best, day in, day out," Higgins said. "That's how I was taught, and that's how I'm going to continue to do it."
View photos from Wednesday's practice with the New England Patriots in Foxborough.