The Panthers who played Wednesday night looked pretty good in Carolina’s 27-17 win over Houston to open the preseason. But the first question in the latest edition of our Panthers mailbag concerns the biggest name on the roster who didn’t play. These questions all were directed at me from either Twitter or email.
Q. Is it time to hit the panic button on Cam Newton’s shoulder?
A. Absolutely not. However, this question pre-supposes that such a button exists, and it does. It is hidden deep in the Carolina locker room, under a grate in the cold tub.
No, I’m just kidding. But not about the first two words of this answer – what is happening with Cam Newton right now is not being treated as a cause for alarm by anyone. While Newton hasn’t thrown in a live drill since July 30 – when he was pulled from a training camp practice because of what the Panthers described as arm fatigue – on the sideline he has been “soft-tossing” with people with a little more zip each day and not experiencing soreness.
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If Wednesday night’s 27-17 preseason victory over Houston had been a real game, I think Newton could have played. If it had been a playoff game, I think there would be a 99 percent chance that he would have played.
What the Panthers are doing right now makes sense. Newton is coming off surgery on March 30 to repair a partially torn rotator cuff, and that is not a minor surgery. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If Newton doesn’t play a snap during the four preseason games, I think that is not ideal, but it would be OK, too. What is happening right now is not enough of a setback to pull Newton from the Sept. 10 opener at San Francisco, and that’s the game that matters. Now if there’s another setback, trouble will be knocking on the door.
Q. Will Ben Boulware make the team?
A. The undrafted linebacker from Clemson with the outsized personality is getting as much press as any undrafted rookie in Carolina’s history (20 years ago, running back Fred Lane was also a media darling at this time of year but because he had been so dazzling on the field).
Boulware, the self-proclaimed “hottest ugly guy on the team,” is an underdog to make the squad. He wasn’t drafted for several reasons, one of which being his relative lack of speed. You could tell Wednesday night how far down Boulware is on the depth chart, as he was one of the very last linebackers to get any significant playing time.
Bottom line: I think Boulware will not make the 53-man roster but will be placed on the practice squad.
Q. Is Graham Gano a sure thing to be the placekicker?
A. No, but he’s the heavy favorite.
I spent an enlightening few hours Monday with Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who gave me an extensive and exclusive interview. Rivera said then: “I am very, very, very pleased with Graham Gano,” and said seventh-round draft pick Harrison Butker had a leg that sometimes looked “bionic” but that the rookie had not been as consistent. Rivera broached the possibility of Butker being put on the practice squad, which is usually used for position players and not kickers.
That, of course, was before Gano missed a 50-yard field goal Wednesday night and Butker made a 51-yarder later from almost the same spot. That kick pushed Butker slightly closer to Gano, but I believe Gano would need to miss a couple more times in the preseason for this position to get switched.
Q. Will Christian McCaffrey get more or less than 10 touches per game in the regular season?
A. More. And I think he will be the No. 1 punt returner based on what Rivera told me this week. But another good option has emerged at punt returner in wide receiver Damiere Byrd, the star of Wednesday night’s win and a very fast player who is undoubtedly going to make the team.
Carolina drafted McCaffrey with the idea of getting him the ball in space, though, and getting it to him a lot. Nothing we saw Wednesday in a promising debut for McCaffrey should change anyone’s mind on that. I would guess 15 touches for McCaffrey Week 1 vs. San Francisco – about 10 runs and the other five split between receptions and punts.
Q. Who will get the snaps at defensive end and what will be the playing-time percentages?
A. The Panthers generally play four defensive ends in real games. This year, barring injury, I foresee those four being Charles Johnson, Julius Peppers, Wes Horton and Mario Addison.
Carolina wants to get Addison on the field more. He played 57 percent of the snaps in the Panthers’ last real game last season and I’d foresee him on the field about the same amount of time this year. I believe Johnson and Peppers will be the starters at least for the first game – partly out of respect for their longevity – but I think the playing time would work out roughly like this right now: Addison and Johnson getting 60 percent of the snaps each, while Horton and Peppers get 40 percent. As to who leads the team in sacks in 2017, I would put my money on Addison.