<
>

Will the Panthers keep Wegher? Stash Cash? Give up on Love?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The fourth NFL preseason game may seem meaningless to those deprived of watching stars such as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, but it's not to players on the bubble.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman repeatedly have said this week that Thursday night's game against Pittsburgh is very important in terms of getting the final spots on the 53-man roster right.

You won't see Newton or backup Derek Anderson. It's not worth the risk of Newton getting injured and Anderson getting reinjured after missing practice all week with an unspecified "soreness."

So this will be the Joe Webb Show on offense.

But it's more than that. Rivera estimated there are seven roster spots up for grabs with final cuts coming on Saturday.

Here's a look those key battles for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff:

RB Brandon Wegher and RB Fozzy Whittaker: I haven't done a 53-man projection that didn't include Whittaker, and I have no reason to think he won't make it. But when asked earlier in the week what he thought about Colin Kaepernick not standing for the National Anthem, Whittaker replied, "I'm just worried about making this roster." The Panthers love what Wegher has done on special teams. He could be a younger version of Whittaker. Both have played a big role on special teams during the preseason and both are third-down backs with explosive speed. Wegher was in for 18 plays on offense and a team-high 17 on special teams in last week's loss to New England. He's sure to get a lot more chances to prove himself as a running back against the Steelers, with starter Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert likely to sit. Whittaker is more seasoned, particularly as a blocker. But if the Panthers decide to keep Damiere Byrd (see below) as a wide receiver and kick returner, one of these backs might have to go.

DE Wes Horton and DE Ryan Delaire: Rivera has acknowledged that a decision on the final defensive end spot could come down to Horton and Delaire. Horton is a proven run-stopper but has shown no upside as a pass rusher. Delaire has plenty of upside as a pass rusher but hasn't flashed with that and his run support has been shaky. There's a chance the Panthers could keep both, which would mean going with five ends and four defensive tackles. A big performance out of Delaire against Pittsburgh could cement his case.

LB Jeremy Cash and LB Ben Jacobs: Jacobs has been a major contributor on special teams the past four seasons. Cash, an undrafted rookie out of Duke, has come on strong as of late. He played only four defensive snaps against New England, but he was in for 14 plays on special teams. He's a raw version of Shaq Thompson, Carolina's first-round pick in 2015. There's more upside than Jacobs. Ideally, the Panthers might like to stash Cash on the practice squad, but there could be the fear another team would snatch him up.

DT Kyle Love and DT Robert Thomas: Thomas played 22 snaps, seven more than Love, against New England. But has the second-year player out of Arkansas done enough to earn a roster spot? Love is a proven product. He played well in Carolina's four-man rotation last season. But he's also 29, and Carolina has an older veteran in Paul Soliali (32), so two might not be necessary.

OG David Yankey and OT Donald Hawkins: Hawkins appears to have the edge here, mainly because Carolina is so thin behind the starters at tackle. But both of these linemen played 29 snaps last week and both have played well enough to earn a roster spot. This could come down to Hawkins' ability to move over and play guard being easier than Yankey playing tackle.

TE Marcus Lucas and TE Beau Sandland: Lucas, a converted wide receiver, has been the forgotten player in the battle for the fourth tight end spot. But Lucas' six preseason catches are tied for second on the team behind wide receiver Devin Funchess (8) and his two touchdown catches are more than anybody else on the roster has. Sandland, a seventh-round pick, is looking for his first catch. The Panthers don't like to give up on draft picks this early, but Lucas could force their hand -- if the Panthers keep four tight ends.

WR Damiere Byrd and WR Kevin Norwood: I've been saying for weeks Byrd will be the sixth wide receiver because of his ability as a kick returner. He's arguably the fastest player on the team. But Norwood is a more seasoned player who has shown flashes. He has six catches for 42 yards and a touchdown in three preseason games. Byrd has five for 93 yards. Neither is totally safe because there is no guarantee the Panthers will keep six receivers.