Position battles to watch in Panthers preseason opener

Offensive line, free safety among spots with competition

Panthers receiver Chris Hogan, left, catches a pass in front of Cole Luke during a training camp practice in Spartanburg, S.C. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers open their preseason on Thursday with a game at Chicago.

While Panther fans won’t be able to check in on Cam Newton and make sure his repaired shoulder passes their own personal evaluation — he’s sitting this one out — there are plenty of other storylines to follow, even after the starters head to the sidelines for an early night off.

Here are some of the training camp position battles that will continue sorting themselves out with Carolina’s first preseason action.

The left side of the line

The Panthers depth chart for the game lists Darryl Williams as the starter at left tackle and Greg Van Roten at left guard.

Williams is recovering from a knee injury that cost him almost all of last season. He’s trying to hold off rookie Greg Little, who was the Panthers’ second-round draft pick out of Ole Miss. Carolina traded up 10 spots to get him.

Little is expected to win the job eventually, which pushes the uncertainty one spot to the right. Williams could be shifted to left guard to keep him on the field, but that spot belonged to Van Roten for most of last season, turning this into a two-position, three-man battle.

The shuffling also impacts Taylor Hearn, a former practice squadder who played the final month of last season for the Panthers. He’s currently listed as Van Roten’s backup at left guard. Backup center Tyler Larsen is also an option at guard. Watching to see which of the veterans — Williams, Larsen — get late-game snaps at guard could give a hint as to the Panthers’ plans.

Dennis Daley, a sixth-round pick out of South Carolina in this year’s draft, will be backing up at right guard. While he’s not involved in the position battle on the other side, the game also offers a chance to see his first NFL action.

Free safety

The Panthers went the entire offseason without really addressing the free safety position. Then, at the start of this week, they brought Tre Boston, a former UNC Tar Heel who started his career with the Panthers, back in a training camp signing.

Boston is listed as the starter for the Bears game, showing just how shaky this position is. Rashaan Gaulden, a rookie last season, was expected to be the starter by default, but he’s now listed as Eric Reid’s backup at strong safety.

Ross Cockrell, a former Duke standout who missed all of last year with injury and has always been considered a cornerback, and Colin Jones, a 31-year-old veteran best known for his special teams prowess, are the backups at free. Cole Luke, who spent almost all of last season on injured reserve, is also an option.

Backup quarterback

Taylor Heinicke spent most of last season as Newton’s backup, coming in to throw Hail Mary passes at the end of halves to save wear on Newton’s shoulder. He got one start near the end of the season, then suffered an injury. Kyle Allen started the season finale and posted a win.

The Panthers used a third-round pick to shake up the backup spot, however, selecting West Virginia’s Will Grier, a Charlotte-area native.

Grier has the big arm and can complete the deep ball, but, for the moment, Allen is ahead of him on the depth chart based on his 228 yards against the Saints to end last season. Heinicke is listed on the fourth team.

Slot receiver

Veterans Jarius Wright and Chris Hogan will battle for the third receiver spot. They’re currently listed as the backups for the two outside spots. Torrey Smith, currently listed on the third team at one receiver spot, will also need to show he’s recovered from last season’s injury. Wright was a reliable target for Newton last year. Hogan came over from New England in the offseason. Aldrick Robinson, who played for the Vikings last year, is another offseason pickup. Seventh-round draft pick Terry Godwin, out of Georgia, is also in the mix.

Backup running back

Christian McCaffrey is a rising star at running back and also considered undersized for the NFL. The team will need to have reliable backups to save him wear and tear or, worst case, replace him after he suffers an injury.

Longtime Panther Cameron Artis-Payne is still around and listed as McCaffrey’s backup. Reggie Bonnafon, a former Louisville quarterback who spent last year on the Panthers’ practice squad, is third team. Draft pick Jordan Scarlett, out of Florida, and undrafted free agent Elijah Holyfield, out of Georgia, are behind him but likely to move up.