CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- During almost every break in practice Wednesday, Samie Parker went to the sideline, pulled out a sheet of paper and studied his new plays.
Near the end of the workout, Parker ran on the field and returned punts, something he's never done in an NFL game.
Parker had a lot to learn. On Thursday, in his second full day as a Panther and only three days after he was released by Denver, Parker will likely play for Carolina in its final preseason game at Pittsburgh.
So while starters Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith and Julius Peppers will play only a series or two in a game that is essentially meaningless, Parker, Dominique Thompson, Travis Taylor and others desperately trying to make it through Saturday's final cuts face an important game.
"I'm just trying to come in and learn the playbook as fast as I can, pick up some of the offense so I can go out there and try to showcase what I can do," said Parker, Kansas City's fourth-round pick in 2004. "Whether it be punt return or offense, I just want to contribute to the team."
The Panthers must cut 21 players by Saturday. While they'll get an extra spot for now because Smith will be placed on the reserve-suspended list while he serves his two-game ban for punching teammate Ken Lucas, coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney face several big decisions.
Will defensive end Hilee Taylor and offensive lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau, two seventh-round picks, make the team? Is time running out for linebacker James Anderson? Will the Panthers keep Brett Basanez and carry three quarterbacks? How many receivers will they carry because of Smith's suspension and injuries to D.J. Hackett and
"There's been a little bit of everything as far as picking a team, whether it's the last game, first game," Fox said. "I've seen guys who don't really play in the preseason make it. But it's some kind of past performance that you make the decision on. You just hope you make the right decisions."
Parker, who caught 110 passes in four seasons with the Chiefs, couldn't move up the depth chart after signing with the Broncos in the offseason. Denver deemed him expendable ahead of Keary Colbert, who was not re-signed by Carolina after last season.
While Parker has never returned a punt or kickoff in the NFL, he said it was because he never had a chance with Kansas City, playing behind Dante Hall and Eddie Drummond.
"Most definitely I think I can handle the job," Parker said.
With Fox saying Wednesday that Robinson is still "week-to-week," it's likely he won't be ready for the season opener. After Jason Carter was lost to a season-ending knee injury in Saturday's win over Washington, Parker is Carolina's next option.
With Carter out and Fox declining to say whether he felt Hackett (toe) will be ready for the season opener after he missed practice again Wednesday, Thompson, Taylor and Chris Hannon have an opportunity Thursday to make the team.
"It's the last chance I get to show my talents," said Taylor, who has disappointed since being the 10th overall pick in the 2000 draft. "I expect to get a lot of playing time, a lot of reps, so I have to take advantage of it."
There is plenty of competition on both lines, too. Offensive linemen Frank Omiyale, Milford Brown and Evan Mathis are on the bubble. On defense, will the Panthers keep Stanley McClover and Darwin Walker? How about Anderson, the linebacker, and safety
So long after DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have taken off their pads Thursday, there will still be fierce competition in the second half. The goal: avoid being called into the coach's office on Saturday armed with the playbook.
"We've got a bunch of guys who can play," Taylor said, "so it's wide open right now."