Carolina Panthers

5 storylines to watch in Friday’s Panthers-Patriots exhibition

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin makes a catch during practice Monday. Benjamin, who missed last season with a knee injury, is still focused on conditioning.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin makes a catch during practice Monday. Benjamin, who missed last season with a knee injury, is still focused on conditioning. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

For the third consecutive year the Panthers and Patriots will meet in the third week of the preseason, which is billed as the mother of all exhibitions.

Except it's not - at least according to New England coach Bill Belichick, who scoffed at the notion that either team will run schemes or plays remotely resembling those they'll break out in two weeks when the real games begin.

That said, Friday's game at Bank of America Stadium is not totally void of meaning. Panthers coach Ron Rivera usually plays his starters into the third quarter before sitting most of them in the final exhibition vs. Pittsburgh. For players on the bubble of making the roster, the exhibition against the Patriots marks their last chance to shine before teams make their first of two rounds of cuts Tuesday.

With that said, the Observer looks at five storylines to watch in Panthers-Patriots exhibition:

1. Cam Newton on the move

Or not on the move. Two years ago in Foxboro, Mass., Newton took off scrambling against the Patriots and took a hit in the lower back from linebacker Jamie Collins. He ended up with a couple of cracked ribs and missed the Week 1 win at Tampa Bay.

Newton has become more judicious when he runs since Collins' hit (which was clean, by the way). He'll still leap over defenders at the goal line when necessary.

But he's more apt to slide or step out of bounds rather than take unnecessary shots than he was two years ago.

2. Kelvin Benjamin's snap count

Panthers wideout Devin Funchess says too much has been made of Benjamin's conditioning and relatively low snap counts a year removed from ACL surgery. Funchess is probably right, but it's worth noting how long Benjamin stays on the field Friday.

Benjamin played eight snaps in the exhibition opener at Baltimore before getting nine last week in Tennessee. Assuming Benjamin sits in the preseason finale against the Steelers, he'll have to triple his workload from last week to approach the 30-35 snaps Rivera set as his goal by the end of the preseason.

Funchess' development in his second year has lightened some of Benjamin's load. But the point of drafting two tall, rangy receivers in consecutive years was to put both on the field at the same time to create mismatches.

3. Panthers' corners/nickels

Given the health and status of several key pieces of the New England offense, the Patriots will not test the Panthers' young corners the way they would have in, say, Week 5 of the regular season.

Belichick has not said definitively whether Tom Brady will play Friday before he sits the first four regular-season games. But there's almost no chance Patriots receiver Julian Edelman plays after he tweaked his surgically repaired foot.

Slot receiver Danny Amendola remains on the physically unable to perform list and tight end Rob Gronkowski hasn't played in a preseason game since 2012.

All that said, the Panthers' two starting rookie corners -- James Bradberry and Daryl Worley -- will get their most extensive action of the preseason. Worley wasn't pleased with his showing vs. the Titans, so look for him give less cushion Friday.

Bene' Benwikere and Zack Sanchez both had interceptions in the win at Tennessee. Benwikere, who also had a sack vs. the Titans, is still trying to round into form eight months after he broke his ankle running after Julio Jones.

Sanchez, one of three rookie corners, is still getting used to playing in the slot after he starred at outside corner at Oklahoma.

4. Panthers' pass rush vs. Jimmy Garoppolo

Even with Garoppolo running an offense that Belichick will keep mostly under wraps, the Patriots still represent a good measuring stick for the Panthers' defense, particularly the pass rush.

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott doesn't blitz much even during the regular season. So it will be instructive to see whether the front four can generate a consistent pass rush against Garoppolo.

Defensive end Kony Ealy has one of the Panthers' three preseason sacks, and the only one by a starting defensive lineman. Coaches are pleased with what they've been getting from starting ends Ealy and Charles Johnson, but would like to see more from backups such as Wes Horton and Ryan Delaire.

5. Will Mike Scifres punt in a preseason game?

Scifres still seems to be the favorite to be the starter, but the 14-year veteran did not punt in the first two exhibitions. The Panthers are exercising caution with Scifres, who is coming off knee surgery to his non-kicking leg.

Scifres, 35, was inconsistent in Spartanburg before being shut down for a week. But he's looked better at practice than Kasey Redfern, the former Wofford punter who was signed after the Panthers waived Swayze Waters.

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