CHARLOTTE - Constructing a roster in a typical year is tough enough. Adding a pandemic to the process will not make general manager Marty Hurney's job any easier.
The usual evaluation tools have been slashed in the interest of health and safety. There were no offseason workouts for the new coaching staff to gain an in-person feel for the roster, especially the rookies. Even as the players have reported and started walk-through practices, they aren't going full speed and won't be in pads until Aug. 17. Plus, Carolina reduced its roster to 80 players before the Aug. 16 deadline to avoid split-squad procedures.
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The Panthers won't benefit from preseason games to evaluate talent either, both on their team and elsewhere throughout the league.
So how does Hurney anticipate navigating through it all?
"You use everything at your disposal," he said Monday. "We don't have the preseason games to use as an evaluation tool, but we have everything else, and that's how we'll make our decisions."
Even bringing in a new guy is different in the age of COVID-19. Hurney said that no team is allowed to work out a player. Instead, the player will be subject to the same four-day testing process as all players and coaches before entering the building.
"I think that right now, we're in a period of if a good player comes up and you can bring him in and get the physical and start the COVID (testing), we'll do that," Hurney said. "But it's not like it was before where you could bring a guy in really have him be involved in meetings and everything the next day."
The Panthers have already had to adjust their roster as a result of the pandemic. Two players have opted out of the 2020 season, linebacker Jordan Mack and edge rusher Christian Miller. Hurney said the organization respects those decisions, knowing each player has his own set of circumstances and must make the best decision for his family.
"Anybody who goes through the opt-out process puts a lot of thought in it," Hurney said. "The safety of everybody in this building and the safety of their families comes first to us."
Reducing the roster to 80 players over the weekend also eliminated the Panthers' kicking competition between Joey Slye and Graham Gano, who was released last week after coming to Carolina midway through the 2012 season.
"It was an extremely hard decision because we think the world of Graham. He's a very talented kicker," Hurney said. "But we decided to go with Joey."
If there's a positive in this whole situation, it's how many players the Panthers could conceivably keep around after they cut to 53 in early September. Practice squads have increased from 10 to 16 players, and six of those will not have any of the usual service time restrictions. That means veterans with extensive experience can be on the practice squad if they're needed for the active roster at any time.
"I think you're thinking in different terms as far as not only a group of 53 but a group of 69, and that might be the biggest difference," Hurney said.
With so few opportunities for evaluation, players have to make a positive impression with every opportunity. Knowing the playbook is always essential, but it's likely even more significant in 2020.
"We've already evaluated players by virtual meetings all offseason," Hurney said. "And I think Matt Rhule and his staff have done a tremendous job of getting guys up to speed with the virtual meetings, and then the way they teach out on the field."
Health and safety will remain the priority as everyone in the league navigates this unprecedented situation. But Hurney is staying flexible and open-minded in putting together the roster. Having spent a lot of time with the coaching staff on what personnel groups should look like, now the club has to make sure the players in the building are of that mold.
"That's the key personnel-wise for us, is just identifying the traits that fit the best into what we're trying to do," Hurney said. "We just have to continue to do that."
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