CHARLOTTE – The final score of Thursday's preseason finale at the Steelers will have little bearing on anything, but the Panthers' coaches and front office will be keeping score in a way that very much matters.
"We've got a lot of really good football players. This is a big game for a lot of these young men," head coach Ron Rivera said when asked about the final audition for Carolina's roster hopefuls. "Hopefully they understand just how important the opportunity is to show and do their best.
"If you look at the back part of each position grouping, there are two or three guys that deserve an opportunity."
Here's a look at some guys to look for with the roster reduction from 90 to 53 fast approaching.
CB Lorenzo Doss: Rivera's statement about two of three guys deserving a chance at each position certainly applies at corner, where James Bradberry, Donte Jackson and Captain Munnerlyn qualify as roster locks with Kevon Seymour in a good spot as well. If that leaves room for just one more corner, it's hard to ignore what Corn Elder has done this preseason; his interception against the Dolphins was one of the top plays of August. Doss was an interception machine during offseason workouts but didn't have any at training camp. He, Cole Luke and LaDarius Gutner will have to balance trying to make a big statement in the preseason finale with exposing themselves to a big mistake.
LB Andre Smith: The talented rookie is one of the reasons that Luke Kuechly has called this the deepest linebacker group the Panthers have amassed during his time in the NFL, but that depth necessarily will take a hit when the roster shrinks Saturday. Smith had some momentum before a hamstring injury sidelined him in the preseason opener, but he returned to practice this week and should get plenty of chances to shine on defense and at least as importantly on special teams.
DE Efe Obada: The product of the NFL's International Player Pathway Program has quite a backstory off the field and hasn't taken a backseat on the field with his recent play. He's at another crowded spot where likely only one player from a group that also includes Daeshon Hall and Bryan Cox Jr. can squeeze onto the roster. If the Panthers don't keep Obada for the 53, they still have some options. They could sign him to the 10-player practice squad and reserve the right to promote him, but other teams could possibly poach him. Or they could sign him to the practice squad as an exception that would allow them to carry him as a protected 11th player, but Obada wouldn't be eligible to join the 53-man roster in 2018.
QB Taylor Heinicke: The fourth-year pro who's been with the Panthers about four months will get the start under center in the final chance for Cam Newton's potential backups to shine. The plan is for Garrett Gilbert to take over in the second quarter before undrafted rookie Kyle Allen handles the second half. Those are big quarters for Heinicke and Gilbert, but the fact that they'll watch the second half with Newton serves as a reminder that roster decisions are about the body of work. Both have made pretty strong cases.
WR Damiere Byrd: There's no guarantee he'll even play and even less of a guarantee that how he plays will impact a roster decision, but Byrd simply is fun to watch. If he doesn't make the roster, it will be a testament to the improvements the Panthers have made at the position than an indictment of Byrd. Some have suggested that Torrey Smith hasn't done enough to secure a spot, but he's running with the first team and is a veteran voice of significance in the meeting room. And while younger speedsters like Byrd and Curtis Samuel have flashed for sure, Smith has a track record of being durable that has so far alluded the others.
OL Dorian Johnson: The unfortunate rash of injuries along the offensive front has opened the door for any number of guys trying to make the roster, and Johnson is no exception. He's a guard by trade, but with three tackles being hit by the injury bug he's getting time there. If he performs well and if Matt Kalil, Daryl Williams and Jeremiah Sirles all prove to not be Week 1 options, maybe someone like Johnson would be an option along with Taylor Moton and Blaine Clausell.