Carolina Panthers

Four things to watch in Panthers’ game vs. Patriots

Four things to watch in the Carolina Panthers’ exhibition at New England on Friday night:

1. Cam Newton’s ankle

The most-discussed ankle in the Carolinas will come under scrutiny again Friday when the Panthers play on the artificial turf of Gillette Stadium. Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Newton’s ankle is nearly 100 percent, but Newton seemed to lack a little of his trademark explosiveness the three times the pocket broke down Sunday night against Kansas City.

A little tentativeness is natural for a player in his first action following offseason ankle surgery. And the bigger picture is to have a healthy Newton ready for the regular season.

But with Newton expected to play the entire first half against the Patriots, it’s worth keeping a close eye on how Newton looks avoiding the pass rush.

2. Newton’s timing with his receivers

Newton’s first three series against the Chiefs resulted in three consecutive three-and-outs, as he struggled to get in an early rhythm with a receiving corps that is almost brand-new. Newton’s always had his share of overthrows, but he was particularly miffed he couldn’t connect with rookie Kelvin Benjamin on a deep route in the early going.

The receivers shared the blame. Free agent addition Jason Avant said wideouts cut their routes short on a couple of plays, a byproduct of not having played with Newton at game speed.

With Newton likely to sit out next week’s final exhibition at Pittsburgh, it’s important he and the receivers get on the same page from the outset Friday.

3. The first-team defense’s first couple of series

The Panthers’ defense has taken a bend-but-don’t-break approach early in the first two exhibitions, letting Buffalo and Kansas City driving the length of the field before holding them to field goals. Sean McDermott’s starting group has yielded a total of 200 yards and 10 first downs in the first quarter, and the Chiefs outgained Carolina 114-1 in the opening quarter Sunday.

It might be a meaningless game in August, but the Patriots’ Tom Brady-led offense offers a good litmus test for the Panthers, who will be without defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring). Getting off the field quickly and giving the ball to Newton and Co. would be a good start.

4. Luke Kuechly in coverage

The Panthers’ middle linebacker and reigning Defensive Player of the Year made improving his coverage his top offseason goal. Kuechly had a couple of late-game, pass interference penalties last season, although his flag – for appearing to wrap up tight end Rob Gronkowski – on the final play of a Monday night game against New England was picked up.

Kuechly was called for pass interference in the exhibition against the Chiefs, who declined the penalty because the pass was complete.

Gronkowski, who had offseason knee surgery, won’t play against the Panthers. But the Patriots’ running backs are heavily involved in the passing game. So look to see if Kuechly – who’s been getting tips from Panthers TE Greg Olsen – gets his head around and makes a play.