Inside the Panthers

First and 10: Byrd flew, Benjamin leapt and Christian McCaffrey made his debut

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) shakes off Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson (30) and free safety Andre Hal (29) after making a reception in the first half in their preseason game at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) shakes off Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson (30) and free safety Andre Hal (29) after making a reception in the first half in their preseason game at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers opened preseason play against the Houston Texans on Wednesday night at Bank of America Stadium with a 27-17 victory.

Ten moments I saw that mattered:

▪ Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano had the team’s first opportunity to score on a 50-yard field goal attempt. But, in shades of a certain season past, he dinged the kick off the left upright. He had a second chance on a 45-yard attempt with 5:55 left in the second quarter, and made it.

Late in the fourth quarter, rookie Harrison Butker got his shot to keep the competition alive with a 51-yarder. He made it.

▪  Defensive tackle Kawann Short took the first step toward earning his massive new contract on Wednesday night, notching the first sack of the preseason on quarterback Tom Savage against Houston’s first-team line. Short has been battling a slight hamstring issue through the last week of camp, but looks to be back in full health.

▪  Carolina’s new left tackle Matt Kalil saw his first live action against a tough test: Houston hybrid pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. Kalil, who has been working all spring and through training camp on his footwork and hand placement with run game coordinator John Matsko, fared pretty well when thumping against Clowney. Left tackle Amini Silatolu came in with the second-team line at left tackle after two series.

Former Clemson teammates Ben Boulware and Deshaun Watson greet each other after the Carolina Panthers/Houston Texans preseason game.

Center Tyler Larsen leapfrogged Gino Gradkowski for the second-team spot, and got the start as Ryan Kalil took a veteran rest day.

▪ Panthers defensive tackle and 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler went down with an ankle injury. He played behind Star Lotulelei, who will be trying to show his value in a contract year. I have to think Butler’s status has a fairly large correlation to the outcome of that contract.

▪ Carolina’s second-team defense has been reason for concern – especially after backup safety Dean Marlowe was waived with a torn hamstring on Tuesday evening.

The depth shook out as such: Veteran Captain Munnerlyn, who starts in the nickel, played outside corner opposite Teddy Williams. The Panthers left three linebackers on the field in Shaq Thompson, David Mayo and Jared Norris, and the team played Colin Jones and Dezmen Southward at safety. Southward had a fumble recovery (forced by Norris and Mayo) in the second quarter.

▪ Damiere Byrd has had a strong camp so far, and with the opportunity to snag one of two openings on the roster, he rose to the occasion against Houston. Byrd burned his coverage and easily pulled in a 50-yard pass from third-string quarterback Joe Webb on the first play of Carolina’s drive midway through the second quarter to push the Panthers up 13-7. Byrd finished the game with two touchdowns and 98 yards on four catches. Barring any injury or dip in performance, he may have sealed his spot.

If so, I have a thought for his nickname: Avian Flew.

Receiver Kelvin Benjamin shared his thoughts to the Panthers public relations staff about the first Webb-Byrd connection at halftime.

“That was nothing but money,” he said. “Speed and money.”

▪ Rookie first-round pick Christian McCaffrey did a (very) little bit of everything, as expected, before being pulled early in the second quarter. McCaffrey broke open a 12-run between the tackles and finished with 33 yards rushing on three carries. He was targeted on a pass once by Webb, but looked like he came off his block a little slow and his lone target fell incomplete.

▪ Benjamin scored the first touchdown of the preseason, a leaping, stretching 23-yard snag off a ball from Derek Anderson, who started in place of quarterback Cam Newton. Benjamin had to feel a little relief with the play, after spending his offseason and spring workouts under, ah, heavy scrutiny.

▪ The competition for a receiver spot intensified after Brenton Bersin had to exit the game with a left quad contusion. Kaelin Clay, Mose Frazier and Keyarris Garrett all got snaps in the game at wideout (and Clay had an impressive debut at punt return), but undrafted free agent rookie Austin Duke did not enter the game until the fourth quarter.

On Duke’s first NFL reception, the pass to him from Garrett Gilbert was ruled incomplete after a review called back a fumble recovery-to-touchdown. Duke got another wide-open shot on the next play, but dropped the third-down pass.

Later in the fourth quarter, Duke made back-to-back plays of 13 yards and 21 yards, respectively.

▪ Rookie undrafted free agent corner Cole Luke got hurdled by rookie Texans running back D’Onta Foreman. Luke is trying to earn a spot with Carolina as some much-needed depth on the secondary. In a pregame interview with NFL Network, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney mentioned to former Panther (and current analyst) Steve Smith that he was going to keep an eye on Luke on Wednesday night.

No pressure, rookie.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

Carolina Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey met with the media on Tuesday during a player availability session at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

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