CHARLOTTE – The final preseason game is often about less established players putting their best foot forward in hopes of working their way into a roster spot at the bottom of their position group.
But with the Panthers' wide-open wide receiver competition, Thursday's preseason finale at the Pittsburgh Steelers could be about players working to earn a spot in the regular rotation and showing enough to keep that spot once other teams make their cuts.
"The depth at wide receiver will be a decision we have to make, probably the biggest one," head coach Ron Rivera said following Monday's practice. "Guys that are battling, I expect them to come out and play the way they need to play to make this team."
Rivera said he's "very comfortable" with what veterans Ted Ginn, Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery have brought to the table, but there isn't a lot of certainty beyond them as the Panthers continue to navigate the loss of top receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury.
The Panthers felt they improved their depth behind Benjamin in the offseason, and they still feel that way. But inconsistency from second-year player Corey Brown and injury concerns for second-round draft pick Devin Funchess have dampened the confidence level.
"There's not too much to talk about. We're the same people," Ginn said. "We've got to take our talent and take off with it."
If the talent currently on the roster doesn't take flight, Rivera hasn't ruled out the possibility that a receiver not currently on the roster could be added come Week 1.
"If we don't have it in-house, we're going to have to go out and find it," Rivera said. "You never know, but for now we're sticking with this group of guys.
"You don't know who's going to be out there yet, so once we get through it, who knows? Maybe there's a veteran that might fit us in terms of what we're looking for. We'll see."
Obviously, the Panthers would prefer that the receivers they've been working with all offseason take command of the situation. That is being complicated by ongoing hamstring problems for Funchess, who no doubt will be on the 53-man roster but whose realistic role remains in doubt.
"He hasn't been on the field enough for us to get the evaluation and really see what his role will be for us," Rivera said. "We're trying to get comfortable with the role he'll have, and the more he practices and gets on the field, the more we'll know about that role."
Funchess showed plenty of promise in the first preseason game, catching two passes for 53 yards, but he injured the hamstring soon after in practice and sat out the last two games. He returned to practice prior to Friday's game against the New England Patriots and hasn't missed a practice since, but he said his hamstring still didn't feel quite right Monday.
"You get frustrated," Funchess said. "You come back feeling good, and it (the injury) comes right back to you."
Brown, a potential starter just like Funchess, hasn't been living up to that potential of late because of a serious case of the drops.
"The biggest thing we've seen with Corey – and (wide receivers coach) Ricky Proehl pointed it out after watching tape – is that he needs to attack the ball," Rivera said. "If you look at the drops that he had, he was waiting for the ball to come to him. Ricky has been working with him, so we'll see how it is once he gets back on the field come Thursday night."
If Brown and Funchess can join Cotchery – slowed by a groin injury but expected to be ready for Week 1 – and Ginn by playing to their potential, then the questions become more about who fills out the position. The four Bs – Brenton Bersin, Jarrett Boykin, Mike Brown and Damiere Byrd – are hoping to play their A-game Thursday in pursuit of a roster spot.
"I think we've got a good group of strong wideouts, and everybody is going to compete every day," Funchess said. "We're all coming to come to work and fighting for the reps, fighting for the team."