Panthers' 53-man projection includes roster flexibility in Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel

The Carolina Panthers must cut their roster to 53 by 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2. Here's a final 53-man roster projection:

QUARTERBACK (3): Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb

This has been set since the beginning of training camp with Newton's surgically-repaired shoulder the only concern. Garrett Gilbert has had his moments as the fourth quarterback. But let's be honest: He was here all along to take snaps while Newton rehabbed.

RUNNING BACKS (4): Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne

Artis-Payne erased any thought that he was in danger because of McCaffrey's presence with a solid preseason. If Stewart were to be injured, Artis-Payne remains the best option as the power back.

FULLBACK (1): Darrel Young

Rookie Alex Armah has flashed during the preseason, but that was against reserves. The Panthers remain high on the former West Georgia star, but for now a spot on the practice squad seems most likely with tight end Ed Dickson also able to play fullback.

WIDE RECEIVER (6): Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Curtis Samuel, Russell Shepard, Damiere Byrd, Brenton Bersin.

There's a chance the Panthers go with five players with McCaffrey also counted as a wide receiver and needs at other positions because of injuries. But Bersin is arguably the team's best route runner and coach Ron Rivera has said McCaffrey's flexibility won't necessarily impact how many receivers Carolina keeps.

TIGHT END (3): Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Chris Manhertz

The Panthers still haven't found a long-term solution in case Olsen is injured.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9): Matt Kalil, Daryl Williams, Taylor Moton, Andrew Norwell, Trai Turner, Chris Scott, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Tyler Larsen

Larsen has played well enough to make veteran Gino Gradkowski (knee) expendable as the backup center. That Gradkowski has struggled to get on the field this preseason doesn't help his cause. The question mark is Scott, who also can play center. He's currently in the concussion protocol.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9): Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, Julius Peppers, Wes Horton, Daeshon Hall, Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Vernon Butler, Eric Crume.

This was the toughest group to predict because of injuries to backup tackles Butler (knee) and Kyle Love (ankle). Both are targeted to be ready for the opener, but Love wasn't on the practice field this week so his availability for the opener seems doubtful. Crume has impressed and is the likely choice to replace him in the four-man rotation. I'm still not convinced third-round pick Hall will be kept over Bryan Cox Jr. Or the Panthers could keep both and move on from tackle Horton.

LINEBACKER (6): Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Shaq Thompson, David Mayo, Jared Norris, Jeremy Cash

Coach Ron Rivera said he had so many good young players that a few would be cut. That could be the case with former Clemson star Ben Boulware. The practice squad might be a good spot for him. The final spot came down between Jared Norris and Ben Jacobs, and Norris gets the edge.

CORNERBACK (5): James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, Captain Munnerlyn, Zack Sanchez, Teddy Williams

A knee injury has kept fifth-round pick Corn Elder from getting on the field, so the Panthers will hope he clears waivers and is re-signed to the practice squad.

SAFETY (4): Kurt Coleman, Mike Adams, Colin Jones, Dezmen Southward

The answer for the fourth may be found from players released. L.J. McCray has been injured and nobody else has stepped up. Southward, who has played well at times, gets the fourth spot by process of elimination.

SPECIALISTS (3): K Graham Gano, P Andy Lee, LS J.J. Jansen

Seventh-round pick Harrison Butker had a good preseason, but the Panthers probably won't risk going into a season in which they hope to make a playoff run with a rookie kicker. Michael Palardy would have been an easy choice over Lee at punter had Lee not restructured his deal during the offseason. But his lower salary cap hit and experience may keep him around. That Palardy sent two punts into the end zone instead of pinning Pittsburgh deep in the first half of Thursday's preseason finale may be a factor as well.