Surprise cuts are a staple of NFL offseasons. Every year, veterans across the league are replaced by younger players with either more skill, more potential or just a smaller paycheck.
It has happened with the Carolina Panthers in the past, with notables like DeAngelo Williams and Roman Harper being released in the past few years.
Here are three potential surprise cuts that could happen in 2017.
1. Center Gino Gradkowski
Gino Gradkowski was signed in early 2016 to take over the backup center position. It turned out to be a smart depth signing. When veteran starter Ryan Kalil was injured Week 8, Gradkowski became the stop-gap starter until Week 12, when he went down with a knee injury.
With Kalil and Gradkowski both on injured reserve, the team promoted Tyler Larsen from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. Larsen is a three-year journeyman that found his way to the Panthers on a futures contract in January of 2016. After being released in October, he was signed to the practice squad.
When Gradkowski went down, Larsen was forced to play in a regular season game for the first time in his career. He finished out the season as the starting center and showed off his skill level well. With the combination of Larsen’s age (he’s two years younger than Gradkowski,) cheap salary and skill level, it’s entirely possible that Larsen will take over the backup center spot by Week 3 of the preseason.
2. RB Fozzy Whittaker
Fozzy Whittaker came to the Panthers in the summer of 2014 to play as a scatback. His job was to change the pace from Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Although he lacked the talent of the two starters, he did have the speed, agility and catching ability they did not. As a change-of-pace back, Whittaker would come in to play on third downs (in which Stewart was not blocking,) or for screen passes.
In another world, Whittaker would have been a fine slot receiver but he is traditional third-down back and the Panthers just picked his successor with rookie Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey can do everything Whittaker can do and more, it’s possible that his roster spot is already as good as gone.
This preseason, Whittaker will likely be showing off for other teams, much like Jordan Todman in 2015. Todman, who had lost his spot to Whittaker, ran for a 49-yard touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the last week of the preseason. After being released in Carolina’s final roster cutdown, the Steelers signed him. Whittaker is now in a similar situation and may be squeezed off of the roster through no fault of his own.
3. Safety Colin Jones
Colin Jones has been with the Panthers since 2011, when he came in as a second-year special teams ace from the 49ers. Jones’ whole career has been centered around special teams. One of the fastest players on the team, he has been Carolina’s primary gunner since he was brought in.
Jones is considerably less valuable for the Panthers’ defense, though. His most memorable plays have mostly been of him getting beaten over the top by a receiver. Thanks to his one-dimensional talents and the fact that he is 29 years old, it’s possible he’ll be beaten out for his spot by a younger and cheaper option.
There are a few players behind him that have potential, namely Dean Marlowe, L.J. McCray and Dezmen Southward. If one or more of them play better than Jones during the preseason, he may be out.