CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After a seven-month wait, Panthers football is back.
The 2017 campaign officially begins Wednesday night when the Panthers host the Houston Texans in their first of four preseason games at Bank of America Stadium. Wednesday night’s contest will see the debut of first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey, as well as a look at a number of players fighting to make the final roster.
Houston Texans (0-0) at Carolina Panthers (0-0)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. EDT
Broadcast info: TV — NFL Network, Spectrum News 14 (Charlotte Spectrum customers) — WBT 1110 AM
Game location: Bank of America Stadium, uptown Charlotte
Forecast: Mid-70s, partly cloudy skies
Here are five things you need to know about Wednesday’s game.
Cam Newton will not play
On Tuesday, Panthers coach Ron Rivera made it official when he announced that Newton will sit out the preseason opener. Newton, who had offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff, hasn’t seen much action in practice after the first week of training camp.
“I think this is probably all scheduled because coaches always have this problem when guys get hurt,” said Panthers analyst Eugene Robinson. “When he showed some real problems with that shoulder, maybe some soreness, you take him out. You do it precautionary to make sure it’s not ruptured because you want Cam for the entire season.”
Rivera said at that time Newton would be on a pitch count, which was increased after Newton experienced soreness in his throwing shoulder last week. On Tuesday, Newton was seen throwing the ball with rookie receiver Curtis Samuel.
Robinson expects Cam to be back for the third preseason game, but doubts linger about Newton's health as the preseason kicks off.
Christian McCaffrey’s Panthers debut
Ever since the NFL draft, Panthers fans have been clamoring to see rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey, who has been dubbed “Run CMC” by Panthers fans, is expected to bring versatility to the Panthers’ offense thanks to his ability to play several positions.
People who aren't excited about McCaffrey obviously haven't been to training camp and seen that juke move in person @macwfnz— Zack Luttrell (@RoaringRiotZ) August 9, 2017
“This young man can flat out play,” said Robinson, who said he loves the Stanford product’s vision. “He has a smoothness about him and he accelerates. So, when he hits the hole, he’s gone. And if you blink, you’ll miss this kid.”
The former Heisman finalist also provides a difficult matchup for opposing defenses because of his skillset. Robinson says McCaffrey, whose father Ed played for the Denver Broncos, could line up at wide receiver or running back.
“Coach Rivera said last year we have to evolve as a team because Cam was running the ball so much,” Robinson explained. “This is where I think that evolution happens because you have McCaffrey who can shoulder a lot of that load.”
Position battles: Who's in, who's out?
One of the most competitive battles brewing at Panthers camp is at the linebacker position. With a stable core of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson locked in, there aren't many spots left for everyone else.
So, who's setting themselves up nicely for a place on the 53-man roster? You have to start with David Mayo, who has demonstrated that he could possibly start for a good number of NFL teams, similar to former Panthers AJ Klein. Jeremy Cash has also had a solid training camp. The former fourth-stringer has seen time in practice with the top units and could prove to be a valuable asset this season.
Carolina Huddle's Jeremy Igo says two local products could be on the outside looking in when the Panthers have to make their final cuts. Gastonia native Zeke Bigger and Clemson product Ben Boulware have both earned an opportunity to show they can make it in the NFL, but with the logjam of talent ahead of them, they'll likely need to contribute on special teams.
The first look at a rebuilt offensive line
While most of the starters won’t see much, if any, action during Wednesday’s game, Robinson believes it’s important the Panthers show they’ve improved, particularly on the offensive line.
PHOTOS: Panthers arrive at training camp
Carolina lost offensive tackle Mike Remmers during free agency and cut Michael Oher during the offseason after a failed physical. In their place will be free agent Matt Kalil and veteran Daryl Williams. Also in the mix will be rookie lineman Taylor Moton.
“Those guys are going to have to hold it down, because they’re going against J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus,” Robinson said. “Those guys are absolute beasts when they rush the quarterback.
“They will test our tackles, and our tackles will have to stand up to that test.”
Are the Panthers better than they were a year ago?
After three straight division championships, the Panthers stumbled to a 6-10 record last season. A number of injuries to key players, including Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton, didn’t help much. But the inability to replace Josh Norman in the secondary led to early season struggles that were too much to overcome. Will this team be able to put that frustration behind them with a new season dawning?
Robinson’s optimism runs high for this Panthers club after seeing them every day in practice. And while Wednesday’s game probably won’t tell the whole tale for the Panthers, it can go a long way in helping young players build confidence moving forward.
“The Panthers looked really good in practice. The defense looked really sharp, the offense looks really sharp, so I’m expecting these guys to come out and execute at a really high level,” Robinson said. “Get your popcorn, because this team is really good.”
But remember, it's still the preseason.
Prediction: Far too many conclusions will be drawn from preseason game one.— Jeremy Igo (@CarolinaHuddle) August 8, 2017