Jeremy Cash literally eats his way onto Panthers' 53-man roster

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Outside linebacker Jeremy Cash was asked following Thursday night’s preseason finale against Pittsburgh how much weight he’d gained since the Carolina Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Duke.

“Sixteen,’’ he said.

Asked how he did that, Cash deadpanned, “Eating.’’

Oversimplified? Definitely. Maybe even a bit cute in a smart-aleck sort of way.

But after Cash made the 53-man roster on Saturday as the Panthers cut the roster to 53, you can say he literally ate his way onto it.

Before the draft, Cash was a 205-pound safety that the Panthers projected as a hybrid outside linebacker in the sense that Thomas Davis was when he was drafted out of Georgia in 2005.

The difference is Davis was 230 pounds when he entered the league.

So Cash began to eat. And eat. And eat.

He ate every three or four hours during his waking hours. He consumed “a lot of protein’’ and other good-caloried foods that would enhance growth.

He did this while working out in 90-plus degree weather that literally drained pounds off players.

“It would have been easy to eat a bunch of burgers and whatnot, put on bad weight,’’ Cash said. “A lot of people say even at 220 I look a lot bigger and move a lot faster being able to run sideline to sideline than I was when I was 205."

The added weight, along with Cash’s nose for the football, will make the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year a tough guy to cut when the Panthers announce their 53-man roster on Saturday.

Keeping Cash could have come down to keeping him or veteran linebacker Ben Jacobs Jacobs has been primarily a special-teams player the past three seasons. The upside of Cash as an every-down player in a few years may be too much to ignore.

Cash was in for more special-teams plays (17) than any other Panthers player against Pittsburgh. He also tied for the team lead in tackles with six.

One was a bone-jarring shot that forced a fumble.

“Coaches told us the standard is the standard,’’ Cash said. “No matter who is out there, our job is stop the offense from making plays.’’

Cash won’t be the only tough call for the Panthers on cut day. There also will be hard decisions at defensive tackle and wide receiver.

But Cash’s unique ability to play the linebacker position like Davis made him almost too valuable to place on the practice squad, where another team could snatch him up.

Remember, 20 teams tried to sign Cash after the draft.

“The versatility I show when I go out on the field, that’s definitely something coaches really look forward to,’’ Cash said. “And also my ability to go out on special teams and make plays.

“It was a tough transition at first, coming from the safety position to linebacker and being able to put on weight and just understand the different tempo and what it takes to be an NFL linebacker.’’

It took a while though.

“If you try to take in too much all at one time, it can be really overwhelming. But our coaches taught us how to put it in buckets, meaning you have different coverages and slight adjustments you make in every bucket. ... If you can group those into separate buckets, everything comes along really pretty easily.

“I really didn’t listen to that at first. It was really overwhelming.’’

Cash still isn’t ready to contribute as an every-down linebacker, or even a backup. There wouldn’t be many snaps for him anyway, behind Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, Luke Kuechly and A.J. Klein.

But as Cash continues to grow -- physically and mentally -- there could be that opportunity.

“I really hope I have an opportunity to be a member of the Carolina Panthers moving forward," Cash said. “But ultimately, I’ve got to wait and see. Whatever happens, happens."

Meanwhile, Cash will continue to eat.

“You can’t get big eating small,’’ he said. “I love food. Food is good.’’