Carolina Panthers

Time running out for players on the bubble

CHARLOTTE -- Tonight marks the final preseason game for the Carolina Panthers, but there are no real team goals at stake other than leaving the game healthy.

For the individuals, it's a final audition, their last chance at proving whether they'll stay or go.

The Panthers have 75 players, and they have to reduce that to 53 by Saturday.

"It's just one more test," coach John Fox said. "There are some close battles going on, and I know at least in my mind, a lot of this will be the difference in the bottom part of the roster."

Thanks to a solid foundation laid in recent years, there aren't a ton of jobs up for grabs. But there are a few spots where guys could win or lose ground at a crucial time tonight.

A look at a few of the competitions that are coming down to some particular either/or questions.

• WR Taye Biddle or WR Chris Horn

This one's just about as clear-cut as they get.

The Panthers will keep their first three options at wideout (Steve Smith, Keary Colbert and Drew Carter), plus rookies Ryne Robinson and Dwayne Jarrett.

The sixth spot is open, even if the guy rarely gets activated.

Biddle's fast and eye-catching, but it's hard to know if his toothpick legs would hold up for a season. Horn's sneaky quick, and gets high marks from some teammates for always being in the right spot. He's also been a good special teams player in his career, something the speedy but slight Biddle might not hold up to.

• G D'Anthony Batiste or C-G Will Montgomery, and T Kenyatta Walker or T Rashad Butler or G-T Evan Mathis

The Panthers have loads of tough decisions when it comes to picking the nine or 10 linemen they'll carry.

They're keeping the current starting five (Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, Justin Hartwig, Mike Wahle and Travelle Wharton), as well as Jeremy Bridges and probably versatile interior backup Geoff Hangartner. That leaves at most three jobs and maybe two, so at least two of these guys are moving on.

They'll probably end up keeping Butler, even though he's been bowled over consistently by Stanley McClover in camp and opponents in games. His supporters point to his quick feet and athleticism, but he may be too narrow in the seat to ever hold firm in the running game.

Batiste is a project, but one the organization's high on. He's bigger and more explosive than Montgomery, although the short-legged second-year man from Virginia Tech is stout in the short areas he can reach. He can snap too, but they've got at least three better options (Hartwig, Kalil, Hangartner), so that might not be enough.

Walker hasn't really shown much so far, and if they think they can cover themselves at tackle with Butler, Bridges and perhaps Mathis, he might be let go. Mathis got most of his work at tackle in camp, but being moved inside late in favor of Bridges didn't seem to be a vote of confidence.

They like their versatility and young players, so they might lean toward keeping 10 blockers and going with Butler, Batiste and Mathis, although it's too close to call.

• RB Eric Shelton or reality

It should be fairly obvious that Shelton's time is nearly up. He's been passed on the depth chart by former practice squader Alex Haynes, and has yet too justify the second-round pick they spent on him in 2005.

Cutting him last year was a possibility, but pride factored in, as no one likes to admit they missed badly on a high pick. There was also a faction inside the building that wanted to keep him to see if a regime change would bring something out of him.

If it has, it's hard to see, just like it's hard to see him around Sunday.

• CB Christian Morton, Curtis Deloatch and Derrick Strait vs. the numbers crunch

One of these guys is going to be the fourth corner, but that might be all they keep since they need the cover numbers provide at safety and linebacker.

Morton's probably the best in man coverage, but Deloatch has the benefit of a track record with secondary coach Tim Lewis as well as his track star speed. He can run with nearly anyone, but hasn't been much of a hitter in his career.

Whichever one (or two) they let go will almost certainly find work elsewhere, and quickly.

• DE Dave Ball or DE Otis Grigsby

These two dark horses refuse to make things easy on the coaching staff.

Ball's been miscast in 3-4 defenses his entire career, and has shown he can contribute in run and pass situations. Grigsby's smaller and quicker, a better pass-rusher. Neither appeared to have much of a shot coming into camp, but they've been among the most noticeable climbers over the last month.

Since the Panthers are locked in for their first three (Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker and McClover), one of these guys would have to steal a spot from third-rounder Charles Johnson or become the fifth end to last past Saturday.

• QB Dalton Bell or someone we don't know yet

Kid, want to be on the practice squad? Tonight's your chance.

The injury to Brett Basanez all but guaranteed they'll keep just two passers on the 53-man roster, but they'll want another one to get them through a week. Basanez turned that internship into a shot at a real job last year, and Bell's got the first shot to impress the coaches, before they pick through what gets cut for the best option.

STEELERS (3-1) AT PANTHERS (1-2)

• When: 8 p.m.

• Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte

• TV: FOX (cable channel 11 in Rock Hill)

• Radio: WBT-AM (1110)

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