2018 Carolina Panthers starters, 53-man roster, schedule prediction

Cam Newton and the Panthers host the Cowboys in the season opener on Sept. 9. Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers roster heading into the 2018 season (starters in bold):

QUARTERBACK (2): Cam Newton, Taylor Heinicke

Heinicke won the backup job over Garrett Gilbert because of his mobility and his experience in Norv Turner's system while both were at Minnesota. Gilbert became expendable and the Panthers were able to keep six receivers and an additional offensive lineman.

RUNNING BACK (3): Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Anderson, Cameron Artis-Payne

Kenjon Barner was the wild card here. He was on my original projection. That he didn't make it showed the Panthers clearly feel good about the strength of their top three plus fullback Alex Armah. Elijah Hood, a Charlotte native, suffered a knee injury in the preseason finale to end his chances of making the roster, but he was a long shot all along.

FULLBACK (1): Alex Armah

Armah's stock the past few months has risen fast with Turner, who uses the fullback more than former coordinator Mike Shula. That Armah has good hands bodes well, too.

WIDE RECEIVER (6): Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith, DJ Moore, Jarius Wright, Curtis Samuel, Damiere Byrd

I mentioned on my original projection that if the Panthers go with two quarterbacks you can toss Byrd into the mix, and that's exactly what happened. Byrd is considered valuable enough as a kick returner and a receiver.

TIGHT END (3): Greg Olsen, Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz

That Manhertz, who spent training camp rehabbing a foot injury, passed his physical on Friday and was added to the roster was a good sign. He likely won't make a big contribution the first few weeks, but having fourth-round pick Thomas playing at a high level makes that a non-issue barring an injury.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9): Taylor Moton, Trai Turner, Ryan Kalil, Amini Silatolu, Daryl Williams, Greg Van Roten, Tyler Larsen, Corey Robinson; Brendan Mahon

That the Panthers kept Williams (knee) and Silatolu (knee) on the final roster means they expect them back sooner than later, although not for the opener. Robinson, acquired in a trade with Detroit, will fill the depth role there. Left tackle Matt Kalil (knee) was put on injured reserve, but Carolina kept him on the 53-man roster until 4 p.m. on Sunday so he would be eligible to return after eight games.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10): Julius Peppers, Mario Addison, Wes Horton, Marquis Haynes, Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, Kyle Love, Vernon Butler, Bryan Cox Jr., Efe Obada

Cox slipped in here. It was a surprise that end Obada, a member of the NFL's international program a year ago, made it. Cuts here were arguably the toughest on the team. defensive tackle Kendrick Norton, a seventh-round pick, made the practice squad.

LINEBACKER (7): Luke Kuechly, (Thomas Davis*), Shaq Thompson, David Mayo, Ben Jacobs, Jermaine Carter Jr., Jared Norris, Andre Smith

Davis won't count against the initial 53-man roster because he is suspended the first four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Smith sneaks into this mix for now, arguably the strongest position room on the team, but injuries have slowed his progress.

CORNERBACK (5): James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, Captain Munnerlyn, Corn Elder, Lorenzo Doss.

Kevon Seymour was the biggest debate here. He struggled in the first preseason game as a starter and missed the third and fourth preseason games because of a root canal. That Munnerlyn and Elder can play nickel and outside is a strength.

SAFETY (4): Mike Adams, Da'Norris Searcy, Rashaan Gaulden, Colin Jones

This group went from being a weakness to a strength with the impressive play of the rookie Gaulden and steady play of Searcy. Adams, 37, looks better after a year in the system at strong safety.

SPECIALIST (3): Graham Gano, Michael Palardy, J.J. Jansen

There was no competition at any of these spots in camp, so this group has been set for a while.