Carolina Panthers

What to watch when Panthers’ Cam Newton, Curtis Samuel play at Jacksonville

Cam Newton throws to Devin Funchess

Cam Newton throws to Devin Funchess during one-on-one drills. Newton threw to first-team receivers.
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Cam Newton throws to Devin Funchess during one-on-one drills. Newton threw to first-team receivers.

He’s back.

For the first time since January, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will play in a live football game Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars in an exhibition that will test his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder.

As Newton continued to “trend upward” in the words of coach Ron Rivera with his full participation in practice this week, the team made the news of the quarterback’s return official Wednesday afternoon.

The team also made official the expected news of the debut of rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who spent most of training camp rehabbing from a strained hamstring.

Here’s what I’ll be looking for:

How long will Newton and Samuel play?

While most of the starters will play at least until halftime (and some into the third quarter), Rivera still wants to be careful with his franchise quarterback. Expect Newton to play about two series’ worth of snaps.

Samuel might be in for a bit longer, but patience and caution are key when healing a hamstring, so Samuel certainly will see his time limited more so than the rest of the first-teamers.

Rookie receiver Curtis Samuel returns to practice after missing almost a month with a hamstring strain.

How will Newton look?

Newton remarked to Rivera after a rusty Monday practice that he felt his timing was off. He threw better on Tuesday, but with so much time away from live action it is reasonable to expect he might have a bumpy outing on Thursday.

I would imagine Newton will lean on quick passes to dependable targets Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey early on to get into a rhthym, as well as getting an early feel for the timing of his handoffs to running back Jonathan Stewart.

His decision-making and patience in execution will also be a focus point.

We’ll also get our first live look at his arm strength post-surgery.

Will Ryan Kalil play?

NFL Network analyst Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that veteran center Ryan Kalil, another key piece in the Panthers’ offense, will also return from rehabbing a shoulder injury. But the Panthers have maintained that they will be careful with Kalil, so his status is unknown.

If Kalil doesn’t return, backup Tyler Larsen now has plenty of experience with Newton after he was thrown into the starting role last December.

Time for Damiere Byrd to fly again

Byrd dazzled in Carolina’s first preseason game, and looked like he had taken the vacant “burner” spot left by Ted Ginn Jr. in free agency this spring.

But after a rough practice in Nashville last week, Byrd all but disappeared from the offense in a sluggish performance against Tennessee. Carolina has faith in the wide receiver, but he needs to step up to seal his spot on the roster.

With Samuel’s return, now is certainly the time for Byrd to make himself as valuable as he can.

What the first-teamers need to show

Last week’s loss to Tennessee opened with several mental mistakes by Carolina’s offense and defense that put them in an early hole.

While it’s unlikely the defense struggles against Jacksonville’s woebegone quarterback Blake Bortles like it they did against the surgically-precise Marcus Mariota, and star running back Leonard Fournette won’t play, vertical threats like Allen Robinson and Dede Westbrook will still provide a test for the first-teamers.

Offensively, Carolina must limit the easy giveaways. Devin Funchess had an egregious fumble on the first play in last week’s game that set much of the tone of the quarter, and backup quarterback Derek Anderson tried to force a ball to Olsen in double-coverage. It was intercepted by a linebacker.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue