After two weeks of clangin’ at Wofford, the Carolina Panthers head to their first test under the lights.
Wednesday night’s preseason game against Houston will feature very little play from the star names on the Panthers’ side of the ball, but a plethora of rising players will get a shot to prove they belong on the roster.
Here are five storylines I’m watching:
Derek Anderson as the starting quarterback
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After either throwing lightly with a trainer or not at all for seven of Carolina’s nine training camp practices, franchise quarterback Cam Newton was confirmed out for Wednesday’s game. Backup Anderson will take his place as the starter, and he’ll be backed up in turn by dual-threat quarterback Joe Webb and camp arm Garrett Gilbert.
Anderson won’t likely play the whole game, either, to let the offense test out a few designed runs and read option packages with Webb and some of its newer personnel.
The debut of Matt Kalil?
Carolina’s new left tackle Kalil missed part of camp because of issues with the humidity and a groin injury. While some of his mistakes as a left tackle in Minnesota loom large on tape, Kalil is eager to prove he can protect Newton the way coaches (and his brother, center Ryan) think he can. Kalil has been working with run game coordinator John Matsko on key aspects of his footwork and hand placement, and those could very well be tested some against formidable pass-rushers J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
Still, preseason games are all about teams wanting to explore depth, so for Carolina, Amini Silatolu will probably see the most time on the left side and potentially face Carlos Watkins or Brandon Dunn. Behind Clowney at the “Jack” linebacker spot for Houston is talented former Standford linebacker Brennan Scarlett, who actually played with Panthers first-round pick Christian McCaffrey during the team’s Rose Bowl season in 2015.
Carolina is shored up well at guard, and rookie Taylor Moton might see some time both at right guard and at right tackle behind starter Daryl Williams, whose job it is to lose.
Finding depth at receiver
Carolina has four spots all but set at receiver with Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Russell Shepard and rookie Curtis Samuel expected to take the feature roles. But with Samuel hurt and head coach Ron Rivera not wanting to risk injuries to starters, both Benjamin and Funchess will probably see little of the field.
This means the opportunity is ripe for the cluster of young, speedy slot guys (and now-veteran presence Brenton Bersin) to step up into the battle for the remaining two open roster spots. Rivera will likely want to see players like Austin Duke, Mose Frazier, Damiere Byrd, Trevor Graham and Kaelin Clay rotate often, and will also probably rotate Byrd and Clay back at punt return as well.
Rookie Fred Ross has missed three days of practice (a fourth, if you count Tuesday’s very limited walkthrough) with an undisclosed injury, and it is unclear if he will be active for Wednesday’s game.
Who will step up in the secondary?
As with the receiver position, the starters in the secondary are sealed behind outside corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, nickel Captain Munnerlyn and safeties Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams. Most, if not all of these players will get the night off against Houston to both preserve their bodies and give defensive coordinator Steve Wilks a chance to see what depth pieces emerge.
At safety, promising backup Dean Marlowe went down with an undisclosed injury and was waived on Tuesday afternoon. If he clears waivers, he will be on the team’s injured reserve. Travell Dixon is currently on injured reserve (foot). Colin Jones and L.J. McCray appear to be the frontrunners to provide depth, with Dezmen Southward and Damien Parms showing flashes.
At corner, rookie undrafted free agent Cole Luke appears to have a slight edge in camp over second-year Zack Sanchez in the nickel. Rookie Corn Elder would probably be the go-to depth here, but he is recovering from a patella stress fracture. Jeff Richards has had a tough camp so far and will be looking for a little redemption, and Teddy Williams is hoping to get back to the promising trajectory he had in spring workouts.
Kicking competition ramps up
The competition between veteran kicker Graham Gano and rookie draft pick Harrison Butker will ramp up through actual preseason games. Both have been solid in camp, but Gano certainly has the edge in the preseason and also has experience in front of NFL crowds. Still, don’t count the big-legged rookie out just yet.