CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With Steve Smith suspended for the first two games, D.J. Hackett still out with a sore toe and Ryne Robinson recovering from a knee injury, the Carolina Panthers couldn't afford to lose another receiver.
They did anyway Monday, learning that Jason Carter will miss the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He was injured in Saturday's 47-3 preseason victory against Washington.
"The whole Steve being out the first couple of games and with our numbers being depleted, it's a good thing that our running backs are running as well as they are right now," joked Muhsin Muhammad, something of a last man standing since he's a veteran receiver healthy enough for the opener.
Smith, the team's top target the past three seasons, will miss the regular-season opener at San Diego on Sept. 7 and the home opener at week later against Chicago for sucker-punching teammate Ken Lucas during training camp.
Hackett and Robinson have been sidelined for most of the preseason, giving Carter a chance to play receiver and fill in for Robinson returning punts. After struggling in earlier games, Carter had seven returns for a 13.3-yard average against Washington. But after his longest -- 30 yards -- Carter limped off the field.
While it didn't appear serious at the time, further tests revealed the torn ligament. He was placed on injured reserve.
"I'm disappointed for our football team but I'm also disappointed for him," coach John Fox said. "He's a guy who was on our practice squad most of last year. He made it onto the active roster and worked his tail off all offseason and was really having a good camp and had a real strong possibility of making our football team."
The Panthers may have to sign a punt returner with Robinson apparently not close to returning from his sprained knee.
"We've got Ricardo Colclough, Chris [Gamble], DeCori [Birmingham]," Fox said when asked about his options returning punts. "There'll be a lot of guys that we can look at, and we'll just see what our potential is on our football team and obviously the other people out there."
Hackett, signed in the offseason from Seattle, remains an enigma this preseason. He's been out since Aug. 6, and Fox has provided few updates other than he's suffered a setback. Hackett, plagued by injuries his entire career, has declined interview requests.
If he doesn't return soon, second-year pro Dwayne Jarrett would be the top candidate to start opposite Muhammad when Smith goes on his unpaid vacation.
After being held to six catches in a miserable rookie season, the former second-round pick has improved in the preseason. Jarrett had four catches for 40 yards Saturday.
"We've been really pushing him hard to work, just to work hard," Muhammad said. "That way you don't have to turn it on, or try to turn it on, in a game. That's what you do all the time, and he's done that. He's really working hard. It's kind of showing up in the games."
There's little depth after that, although the injuries give long shots Chris Hannon, Travis Taylor and Dominique Thompson opportunities to make the 53-man roster after Saturday's cuts. It makes Thursday's preseason finale at Pittsburgh extremely important for the trio.
The Panthers released CB Curtis Deloatch and waived DE Casper Brinkley, TE Chris Conklin and QB Lester Ricard to get to the 75-player limit ahead of Tuesday's deadline. ... Muhammad said he could have played Saturday, but the coaches decided to rest him after he bruised his ribs a week earlier.