All eyes – at least among the Carolina Panthers’ coaches, front office and fans – will be on the team’s rookie cornerbacks Thursday in the preseason opener at Baltimore.
Coming off the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers are rolling with second-round pick James Bradberry and third-rounder Daryl Worley at the spots manned by Josh Norman and Charles Tillman for the bulk of last season.
Bradberry and Worley will not have to cover Ravens wideout Steve Smith. The Panthers’ all-time receiving leader remains on the physically unable to perform list as he continues his recovery from Achilles surgery.
The Panthers’ key starters are expected to only play a couple of series at M&T Bank Stadium, which now features a natural grass surface. And while the outcome of the game is meaningless, there’s plenty at stake for many on the 90-man roster.
Five things to watch Thursday night:
1. Carolina’s other defensive backs
Specifically, nickel back Bené Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston.
Benwikere began camp on the PUP list and still looks less than 100 percent in his return from the leg injury that sidelined him for the playoffs and Super Bowl. The training staff is looking for a balance between getting Benwikere enough work without overtaxing his surgically repaired fibula.
As for Boston, the former UNC safety has had a good camp, highlighted by his two interceptions of Cam Newton in a two-day span. But he has to remember he’s the last line of defense and can’t be beaten over the top, as he was often throughout his college career.
2. High throws to Kelvin Benjamin
The joke when the Panthers drafted Benjamin in the first round in 2014 was Newton finally had a receiver he couldn’t overthrow. The 6-5 Benjamin made a couple of nice leaping catches early in camp, but he has not taken any unnecessary chances at Wofford.
The Panthers also have been cautious in managing the repetitions for Benjamin, who missed all of the Super Bowl season after tearing the ACL in his left knee at camp.
Benjamin won’t be in the game long Thursday, just enough to remind the Panthers what they were missing in 2015. They don’t want to be without him again.
3. Big Vern Butler
Ron Rivera tagged defensive tackle Vernon Butler with the “work in progress” label a couple times in Spartanburg, most recently following Tuesday’s practice. That might be OK with most rookies, but Butler is a first-round pick whom the Panthers expect to make an immediate impact.
Despite his 6-4, 325-pound frame and ample backside, Butler was getting stuck in his pass rush early in camp. But after working with defensive line coach Eric Washington on using better hand technique, Butler has been beating the Panthers’ centers and guards more frequently during 1-on-1s in recent days.
Being able to replace Kawann Short with another disruptive force in the interior would be big.
4. Swayze Waters
Yes, he has a unique name and a goofy back story involving goat milk. But Waters also appears to have the early lead in the punting competition – although Rivera said the decision-makers will put more emphasis on the preseason games.
With veteran Mike Scifres’ surgically repaired, non-kicking knee flaring up a bit, Rivera might let Waters handle all the punts against the Ravens. Scifres would then do the punting next weekend at Tennessee.
The Panthers aren’t only looking for someone to bomb it downfield. They also value a punter who can drop in directional kicks near the sideline to neutralize good returners.
5. The second-team offensive line
The Panthers return all five starters up front, but are looking to develop depth behind Ryan Kalil and Co.
Backup center/guard Gino Gradkowski has played well after signing a three-year deal during the offseason, and second-year tackle Daryl Williams has improved as camp has worn on. But other reserves, such as tackle David Foucault, have struggled.
Keep an eye on the second-team line Thursday when Derek Anderson is in the game. Anderson is a pocket passer, but will there be a pocket to stand in?