After seven months of waiting, the Carolina Panthers will return to game action later this week. On Thursday night, Carolina will open its preseason slate on the road against the Chicago Bears. The Panthers enter 2019 with a few question marks, but overall, has one of the deepest and most talented rosters the franchise has ever seen. With that being said, here are five things to keep an eye on during the Carolina Panthers preseason opener.
Five Things to Watch In the First Carolina Panthers Preseason Game
Backup Quarterback Battle
After undergoing shoulder surgery in January, Cam Newton is expected to make a healthy return to the field in 2019, and is without question the starter in Carolina. Behind him, though, the quarterback pecking order is up in the air. The Panthers drafted Will Grier in the third round of this year’s draft, and he’s looked good during camp, although he has also had his share of rookie moments. Kyle Allen has perhaps been the most impressive of the backups during OTAs and training camp, and he played well in his lone NFL start in Week 17 of last year. Last but not least is Taylor Heinicke, who was Newton’s primary backup last year and started in Week 16 before leaving with an injury.
Of the three, Grier has the highest NFL ceiling, however, Allen already has a year’s worth of experience under his belt, and Heinicke proved his toughness and determination in limited action last season. It’s unlikely that Newton will play Thursday night, and Allen and Grier have evenly split second-team reps during camp. Allen is listed as the second-string quarterback on the Panthers initial depth chart, with Grier third, and Heinicke behind him. Regardless of the current pecking order, the preseason will allow each to showcase his talent and win the job as Newton’s backup. The quarterback position is as deep as it has been in team history, so it should be a very interesting battle to watch.
Revamped Pass Rush
The Panthers ranked 27th in the league in sacks in 2018, and lost the fourth all-time sack leader in NFL history to retirement. General manager, Marty Hurney, made it a priority to improve in that area in 2019. In doing so, Carolina went out and signed veterans, Bruce Irvin and Gerald McCoy. The Panthers also addressed the pass rush during the draft, selecting Brian Burns in the first round, and Christian Miller in the fourth round. After departing from a traditional 4-3 defense, the Panthers have transitioned to a 3-4 scheme with a formidable front three of McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Kawann Short. Behind them will be Irvin/Burns, Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson, and Mario Addison. The front seven should be among the best in the entire NFL, and could once again transform the Carolina defense into an elite unit.
Young Receiving Corps
Throughout camp, Carolina’s most impressive player has perhaps been third-year receiver, Curtis Samuel. Samuel has drawn rave reviews from coaches and reporters, praising his improved route-running ability, speed, and soft hands. He has shown flashes during the past, however, he’s struggled to stay healthy over his first two seasons, and has yet to be a consistent contributor. Samuel has been spectacular for sure during camp, so it will be exciting to see how the camp success translates into game action. DJ Moore is another young Panthers receiver to keep an eye on. Following a slow start to his rookie season in 2018, he hauled in 32 passes for 471 yards over the final seven games of the season. What was once seen as a point of weakness for the past several years may now be a strength for this offense.
Fight For The Nickel Spot
Now that the Panthers have their free safety in Tre Boston, the only remaining hole in the secondary is at the nickel position. Earlier in the off-season, Corn Elder appeared to be the leading candidate for the position, however, the battle now seems completely up for grabs. Ross Cockrell and Rashaan Gaulden have gotten time with the first-team defense at nickel, and Javien Elliott has come on strong of late. Even third-year man, Cole Luke, who has yet to take an NFL snap has seen time with the starting defense this off-season. The preseason will be key in determining who wins the job, and the winner will look to provide consistency to a position that hasn’t been so since Captain Munnerlyn’s first stint in Carolina.
Defensive Growing Pains
As noted earlier, the Panthers are transitioning to a 3-4 defense this season, breaking away from their usual 4-3 look. The preseason will be huge for players like Addison, who must transition from a traditional defensive end to one who can drop into pass coverage. Another huge change for the Carolina defense is who’s calling the shots. For the first time since 2010 while with the San Diego (now LA) Chargers, Rivera will be calling his team’s defensive plays full-time. Rivera ran the defense for the final four games of 2018 after removing defensive coordinator, Eric Washington, from play-calling duties. Rivera will continue to call the Panthers’ defensive plays this season, while Washington remains the defensive coordinator (by title, at least).
Embed from Getty Images