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Fowler: Four questions for the Carolina Panthers

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
The player with the highest salary-cap figure on the Carolina Panthers, defensive end Charles Johnson - seen here after Thursday’s practice - has kept one of his the lowest profile in training camp. He missed half of it, in fact, with a lingering hamstring injury.

This is a test.

For the next 60 minutes, the emergency Carolina Panthers broadcast system will conduct a test in your area. If this were an actual emergency, you would be instructed where to tune to express your displeasure with the current Panthers football team. This is only a test.

That’s what exhibition games are in the NFL – tests that ultimately do not count for a team’s final grade. Yet they have some significance, for they show what a team has and what it lacks.

Here are four test questions I want answers to during the Carolina Panthers’ home exhibition Sunday at 8 p.m. against Kansas City.

1. Is Cam Newton really healthy?

Newton enters his fourth year in the NFL with all sorts of things going for him. He’s more mature, more clutch and more patient than he has ever been. But what about that surgically repaired left ankle?

Right now, Newton can’t run with the creative spirit he relies on – and the Panthers don’t want him to. He will be primarily a dropback quarterback in his first exhibition action of the season. Those sorts of limitations take away at least 20 percent of Newton’s game, but they are absolutely necessary.

Coach Ron Rivera said Newton will play at least the first quarter. I expect Rivera would like Newton to play more than that – Kansas City starting quarterback Alex Smith is supposed to play at least the first half.

But the Panthers are being very careful with Newton, as they should be. I thought he had a very good training camp throwing the ball, but there’s no way to know for sure until you see him under duress.

2. Can the offensive line hold up?

The new-look offensive line hasn’t looked very good so far, and this remains the biggest question mark on the team. Center Ryan Kalil is a Pro Bowler, but he has his hands full trying to get the four young players on his left and right in the correct positions and doing the correct things all at the same time. If the Panthers break down this season, I think the two most likely culprits would be: 1. Newton gets hurt; or, 2. The offensive line simply doesn’t work.

The Chiefs gamble a lot on defense and, when they win, they cause a lot of havoc. This will be a challenge. The Panthers have running backs who can still hit the hole just fine. But will there be any holes to hit?

3. Who is this team’s other big-play receiver?

Training camp clearly established who the team’s best receiver is – rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin. On some days in Spartanburg, Benjamin looked as talented as Steve Smith did every single day during Smith’s peak in the mid-2000s.

Benjamin will have some chances against the Chiefs, too. Remember, this is the defense that disintegrated as Kansas City lost a 38-10 lead in the playoffs and wound up seeing Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck beat the Chiefs 45-44.

In last week’s exhibition, Kansas City allowed a 53-yard pass from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green. The Chiefs play a heavy dose of “press” man coverage, so if the receivers can beat the cornerback off the line, there is room for big plays.

But besides Benjamin (and tight end Greg Olsen, not included here because we are talking about wideouts), who else on this team is going to beat cornerbacks with regularity? I’m not talking about 10-yard comeback routes. I am talking about the plays that can change the tenor of a game – the sort that Ted Ginn Jr. made last year.

4. How good will Charles Johnson be?

The player with the highest salary-cap figure on this Panthers team, defensive end Charles Johnson, has kept one of his the lowest profile in training camp. He missed half of it, in fact, with a lingering hamstring injury. Like Newton, he will make his exhibition debut vs. the Chiefs. Unlike Newton, not every camera in the stadium will be trained on him.

But make no mistake, for Johnson, 28, staying at the level where he has played the past several years will be huge. He and Greg Hardy had 49.5 sacks combined over the past two years, tied for the most in the NFL.

But Johnson has to be an elite rusher once again to make sure teams don’t always double-team Hardy, who has looked like the team’s best pass-rusher once again in camp. If Johnson were to turn into an average NFL rusher because of injury or age, the Panthers’ front seven would suddenly seem far less intimidating.

And it is that front seven that has to be great to help out a secondary that has been pieced together with the idea that no quarterback can throw the ball too accurately when he is running for his life. If the Panthers are going to win big this year, the defensive units most responsible for that NFL-high 60 sacks in 2013 must be fantastic once again.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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