Carolina Panthers

Which player holds the key to the Panthers’ offense? It’s not who you think

A motivated Kelvin Benjamin (13) playing for a contract should be a good thing for a receiving corps that lost a lot of speed when Ted Ginn signed with New Orleans.
A motivated Kelvin Benjamin (13) playing for a contract should be a good thing for a receiving corps that lost a lot of speed when Ted Ginn signed with New Orleans. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Panthers spent their offseason energies – and about $89 million in contracts – with one goal in mind: protecting quarterback Cam Newton.

They tweaked their offense, brought in free agent left tackle Matt Kalil, drafted a couple of playmakers in Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel and added new slot receiver Russell Shepard – all with an eye on getting the ball out of Newton’s hand more quickly and extending the career of the franchise’s most important player.

The wrinkles in Mike Shula’s scheme figure to take some time to iron out after Newton played in only one preseason game coming off March shoulder surgery. If Newton’s shoulder holds up and McCaffrey is as good as he looked in the preseason, Shula should have something to work with.

Here’s a position-by-position look at the offense:

Quarterbacks

Starter: Cam Newton. Key reserve: Derek Anderson.

Quick take: There was a mini-debate in August on whether Anderson or Joe Webb should be the primary backup. But Webb -- a popular player in the locker room – ended up getting cut. The real issue is whether a healthy Newton can make the precision throws, improve his completion percentage and get back to at or near his 2015 MVP form.

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The tandem of Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, above, and rookie Christian McCaffrey could be something to watch. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Running backs

Starters: Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey. Key reserves: Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne, Alex Armah.

Quick take: Stewart was looking for nickname suggestions for the new backfield pairing featuring him and McCaffrey (Thunder and White Lightning?). But the tandem could be something to watch, with Stewart bulling his way through linebackers and McCaffrey making them look silly in open space.

Wide receivers

Starters: Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Russell Shepard. Key reserves: Curtis Samuel, Damiere Byrd.

Quick take: Benjamin looks to be on the verge of a big year – after just looking big during the offseason. A motivated Benjamin playing for a contract should be a good thing for a receiving corps that lost a lot of speed when Ted Ginn signed with New Orleans. Samuel, who missed much of the preseason with a hamstring injury and hurt his ankle in the final exhibition, has game-changing speed if he can stay healthy.

Tight ends

Starter: Greg Olsen. Key reserves: Ed Dickson, Chris Manhertz.

Quick take: Olsen is looking for his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season after becoming the only tight end in NFL history to record three in a row. He’ll probably reach it, although the addition of McCaffrey might mean fewer touches for Olsen. Dickson’s blocking ability will be instrumental in getting McCaffrey free on the edge, and Manhertz needs to catch the ball more consistently.

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Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Matt Kalil (75) might be the man most responsible for the success or failure of the offense. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Offensive tackles

Starters: Matt Kalil, Daryl Williams. Key reserves: Taylor Moton, Amini Silatolu.

Quick take: For all the focus on the offensive tweaks and McCaffrey’s diverse skill set, Kalil might be the man most responsible for the success or failure of the offense. The Panthers gave the younger Kalil $55.5 million in the hopes that a change of surgery and a repaired hip will re-energize his career. The preseason signs were promising. On the right side, Moton has the look of a future starter.

Interior linemen

Starters: Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner, Andrew Norwell. Key reserves: Tyler Larsen, Greg Van Roten.

Quick take: The training staff scaled back Kalil’s preseason work to get him ready for Week 1 after shoulder surgery last fall. The starting guards are maulers and form one of the best guard tandems in the league. Ron Rivera called Larsen the center of the future. But losing Kalil the Elder to injury would be tough to overcome.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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