Five takeaways from the Panthers’ exhibition opener against Buffalo and my latest 53-man roster projection:
1. Don’t worry about the health of quarterback Cam Newton’s ankle.
Newton didn’t suit up Friday, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything.
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Newton and a group of receivers arrived at Bank of America Stadium early and went through a spirited workout, according to Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Newton also ran on the underwater treadmill, and Rivera said there’s a good chance Newton plays in the Aug. 17 exhibition against Kansas City.
Newton’s ankle appeared to be feeling fine, based on his sideline activity. After Joe Webb’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Brandon Williams, Newton ran on to the field and jumped to bump hips with Webb.
Rivera said doctors emphasized Newton remains “right on track” in his recovery from March surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.
“It’s not how I felt, it’s about my progression,” Newton said. “It’s a plan that’s in place for me to get back there. ... I have to be smart, and have to be coachable, too.”
2. Don’t sleep on tight end Greg Olsen.
For all the changes the Panthers made to their wide receiver group, they did bring back their leading receiver from last season in Olsen. There might be tight ends around the league who are a step faster, but Olsen knows how to get open and almost always comes down with the ball.
Olsen caught both passes Derek Anderson threw to him against the Bills, for 22 yards.
And don’t discount the chemistry he and Newton have built in three seasons together. Newton mentioned that Friday when discussing his need to get on the same page with the new wideouts.
“Me and Greg have been together for as long as I’ve been here,” Newton said. “And there’s some things that happen on the field that he’s thinking and I’m thinking, and it shows.”
3. Kony Ealy might be figuring some things out.
Ealy, the defensive end the Panthers drafted in the second round, had a rough start to training camp. He had a knack for staying blocked, generated little or no pressure and was the object of some taunting by Newton during a practice last weekend.
But Ealy was productive against the Bills, finishing with three tackles, including one for loss.
“I thought Kony showed up,” Rivera said. “He applied some pressure on the outside. Did a nice job, didn’t get fooled on the bootleg. Made a couple nice knifing tackles on some runs, cutback plays.”
Ealy is still behind second-teamers Mario Addison – who showed good speed and pursuit angles vs. Buffalo – and Frank Alexander on the depth chart. But Alexander is suspended the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
4. If it’s August, it must be time for Josh Norman to shine.
Norman immediately went to work defending his title as the NFL’s preseason interceptions leader (he had four last year). Norman picked off Jeff Tuel in the second half, and he had pretty good coverage on Mike Williams when Williams went up to snare a 28-yard pass.
Norman, who added a team-high six tackles, has great ball skills. Those would seem to be transferable to the fall, but blown assignments keep setting him back when the games count.
5. The Panthers lack a spark in the return game.
Kenjon Barner fielded two punts and didn’t gain a yard on either. Barner didn’t have much of a chance before getting buried on the first one. But he failed to make a decisive upfield move on the second.
Kealoha Pilares, who’s missed all or part of the past two seasons with injuries, failed to reach the 20 on the two kickoffs he brought out of the end zone.
Rivera has other returners he can try, but none is named Ted Ginn Jr.