Carolina Panthers rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden was fresh out of his second NFL preseason exhibition when he turned his mind to what it would be like to face off against Tom Brady, New England’s future Hall of Fame quarterback.
“Oh my God, that would be so cool,” said Gaulden, when asked how it would feel to get a chance at intercepting a Brady pass..
Little did Gaulden know at the time, he’d be starting on Friday night in Carolina’s third exhibition. Veteran safety Da’Norris Searcy remained in the concussion protocol through Wednesday, prompting coach Ron Rivera to name Gaulden the starter.
To his outside, he’ll have fellow rookie Donte Jackson at cornerback. The two were 5 years old during Brady’s own rookie season.
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“I feel good,” said Jackson. “It’s going to be a life-changing moment, but it’s going to be fun. ... (Brady is) one of the best to ever play the game. I’ve been watching him since I was a kid. It’ll be cool to get out and play against him.
“I know I’ve been watching him for a long time. So it’s going to be kind of a bittersweet moment.”
What to watch
▪ Carolina’s offensive line
The Panthers will be without three projected starters on the offensive line: left tackle Matt Kalil (knee), right tackle Daryl Williams (knee) and guard Amini Silatolu (knee).
So second-year tackle Taylor Moton will get his first start at left tackle (he started at right tackle previously in the preseason), and former Viking Jeremiah Sirles will start on the right. Third-string center Greg Van Roten will start at left guard, a task he proved more than capable of succeeding at last week with excellent run-blocking.
Carolina’s makeshift line will have to find consistency and likely will play into the third quarter, though coaches will err on the side of caution since behind these three, there isn’t much depth.
▪ Kenjon Barner vs. Cameron Artis-Payne
Carolina has a really tough decision to make at running back in the next two weeks as roster cutdowns approach. They may decide to keep three running backs instead of four, in order to add depth on the offensive line and at defensive back, and they will certainly keep a fullback (Alex Armah).
So Barner and Artis-Payne, two hard, downhill runners who are also excellent on special teams, might be in a tight battle. Friday will be a resume-builder for both after the starters leave the game.
▪ Second linebacker rotation
Carolina is in the process of tapering veteran linebacker Thomas Davis’ snaps over the next two weeks, because Davis will serve a four-game suspension to begin the season.
This means Shaq Thompson, who will be the starter in place of Davis, will likely also start Friday night.
And keep an eye on backups David Mayo and Jermaine Carter Jr., who will play a big part in the linebacker rotation through the first four weeks of the season with Davis out.
▪ Norv Turner’s offense?
This will be the closest Carolina gets all preseason to showing what its offense under new coordinator Norv Turner will look like in full.
Quarterback Cam Newton will play through the third quarter along with the first team, but because his offensive line is currently unsettled there will be tweaks and extra protections that may not be routine when the regular season begins.