When the Cowboys took on the Cardinals last Thursday in the hall of fame game, that signified that football was officially back. We may still have a month to go before any games of actual consequence start, but as fans of football, we will be able to indulge in some sort of action every week from now until the Super Bowl in early February. That, in and of itself, is a blessing. The Panthers open up their campaign this week on Wednesday evening against the Texans. Kickoff is set for 7:30 PM in Charlotte and we should finally get some clarity on a few questions we have built up throughout the offseason.
Here are a few of my questions going into the first preseason game:
1. What will Cam Newton’s role be?
I’ll go ahead and get this one out of the way. It’s unlikely that we will see Cam Newton in the game at all on Wednesday given how limited he has been in practice over the last week. Typically, the first string guys (especially the quarterback) will only participate a series or two in the first preseason game anyway. Should Cam get medically cleared to play or force his way onto the field (not a stretch) then I imagine that any throws he makes will be quick, short passes and I imagine there would only be 1 or 2 of them total.
2. How much of an evolved offense will we actually see?
Ever since the 2016 season ended, we have heard a ton about evolution and adjusting the offensive philosophy to not only protect the health of Cam, but to also win more games. The offensive staff is still in tact, but drafting guys like Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel showed that offensive evolution wasn’t just a bunch of talk. Samuel’s hamstring injury will keep him sidelined for this game so we won’t get to see how his involvement will affect the offense, but we should get a ton of looks at McCaffrey. I can’t remember a Panther rookie that has garnered this much hype and attention from the fans and the media during the first couple weeks of training camp. That includes Cam Newton. All signs point to CMC being the real deal and we should see him get a lot of touches Wednesday night. It’ll be interesting to see how much Rivera plays him though. My guess is that he will be pulled at halftime.
3. Will the second year DB’s officially not look like rookies?
There was a ton of criticism (and rightly so) for Dave Gettleman when he let Josh Norman walk away for nothing in 2016 and placed the entire fate of the secondary in the hands of a couple rookie corners. That being said, James Bradberry and Daryl Worley showed a ton of promise towards the end of last year after taking some lumps early and the reports out of camp have been extremely positive of their performance. On Wednesday, both Bradberry and Worley will get their chance to show just how good they are against a pretty solid Texan receiving core.
4. How will Matt Kalil hold up in pass protection?
The Panthers made a sizeable investment to Kalil to hold down the left tackle spot for the next few seasons. Some people liked the signing and some people didn’t. That being said, Kalil is a high character guy and has all the physical tools to be a top tier tackle in this league. The question and unknown has always been his health. The indications are that they hip surgery he had this offseason has alleviated the main issue that has slowed him down the past couple of years in Minnesota, but the only way to prove it is by performance. I’m not sure if JJ Watt is playing on Wednesday night or not, but if he is, I can’t think of a better litmus test for the o-line’s ability to pass protect and Kalil in particular.
5. Which back end player(s) will take a step forward to making the roster?
I always find it amusing when fans get super involved in which player makes the final few roster spots because, for the most part, these players will be inactive during the regular season barring any injuries. In their defense, those battles are important and having good depth is key for good football teams.
The deeper reserves should get plenty of chances to make a move in this game. Most, if not all, of the starters will be done after halftime so guys will get a chance to actually make plays on offense and defense. The special teams opportunities will be there all game and if there is a sure fire way to make this roster it’s because you made plays on special teams.
There will be a bunch of position battles to watch, but wide receiver is certainly at the top of the list. Benjamin, Funchess, Russell Shepard and Curtis Samuel are locks to make the team, but with Samuel’s injury, there is a decent chance Rivera will carry 6 receivers into opening day which leaves two spots open. Known commodities like Brenton Bersin are still out there, but with Samuel out and Ted Ginn in New Orleans, there is a definite need for speed on the outside which will make guys like Damiere Byrd, TJ Graham and Austin Duke intriguing guys to watch on Wednesday.