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Five Panthers players to watch

By Joseph Person
jperson@charlotteobserver.com

Week 3 of the NFL’s preseason schedule is about as close as it gets to real games. Starters usually play the better part of three quarters, as the Carolina Panthers’ first-teamers are expected to Thursday night against the reigning Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens.

Next week’s game at Pittsburgh will be more about second- and third-stringers fighting for roster spots. But the Panthers’ starters will be the focus Thursday when Carolina looks to clean things up on both sides of the ball.

Here are five Panthers’ players to keep an eye on during the nationally televised game in Baltimore

:

Cam Newton

First-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula barely cracked the playbook during the first two exhibitions, and won’t show off any wrinkles against the Ravens. But Newton will look to be more consistent in the passing game than he was last week at Philadelphia.

Newton didn’t have great protection against the Eagles, and was forced to hurry a couple of throws. But he also air-mailed a couple of passes over Steve Smith.

Newton, who has led just one touchdown drive in eight preseason series, doesn’t need to take off scrambling and risk injury. But he needs to be more precise in his delivery.

Ted Ginn Jr.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera is eager to get Ginn, a free-agent acquisition, his first touches as a returner.

The team’s younger returners took the reps in the first two exhibitions while the Panthers tried out different combinations of blockers on the punt and kickoff return teams.

Ginn’s last return in a game came against the Ravens at the end of Super Bowl XLVII in February. With a number of wideouts sidelined with injuries, Ginn should get extended work at receiver, as well.

Garry Williams

Williams has been the starter at right guard since Geoff Hangartner was released during the first week of training camp. A lingering hamstring injury to rookie Edmund Kugbila has weakened the competition for the spot.

The Panthers likely will sign a veteran offensive linemen when teams begin paring their rosters, although Williams can make a case for holding on to the job by protecting Newton and getting a good push when Carolina tries to run against the Ravens.

Star Lotulelei

The Panthers’ first-round draft pick admitted he got tired last week trying to keep up with the Eagles’ rapid-fire offense. It will be worth noting how Lotulelei holds up in what figures to be his most extensive playing time as a pro.

Though Lotulelei has yet to make a huge impact, Rivera said his space-eating skills have allowed the linebackers to run more freely behind him.

Graham Gano

Rivera hopes to see Gano handle mostly kickoffs Thursday after the Panthers managed only three field goals last week after bogging down in the red zone against Philadelphia. Gano has made all three of his field-goal attempts, with plenty of room to spare on kicks of 50, 47 and 32 yards.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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