Scott Fowler

As season opens, Panthers have 10 questions they must answer for fans – and themselves

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) are close friends who need a big season in 2017. Newton is coming off what was his worst year statistically for Carolina; Benjamin is nearing the end of his contract.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) are close friends who need a big season in 2017. Newton is coming off what was his worst year statistically for Carolina; Benjamin is nearing the end of his contract. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

So we are finally here, to the point every NFL fan longs for during the needlessly long preseason. Here are 10 questions the Carolina Panthers need to answer for themselves – and their fans – on Opening Day starting at 4:25 p.m. on Sunday in California when they play the San Francisco 49ers.

1. Is Cam Newton’s arm sound?

The surgically repaired shoulder appeared to be OK this week in practice, but Newton has barely taken his golden right arm out for a test drive all through August. I have no doubt he will stay in the game and try to make every throw Sunday. “No limits,” head coach Ron Rivera has decreed. But will Newton’s arm hold up for that – not only Sunday, but for the season? And can he shake off the rust and get the ball out of his hands quickly and effectively enough to avoid the poundings he so often takes?

2. Is the offensive line sturdy?

Nowhere did the Panthers falter more in the drop from 15-1 in 2015 to 6-10 in 2016 than on the O-line, where everything begins on every offensive play. The biggest thing to watch is whether Matt Kalil will get it done at left tackle.

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Carolina Panthers signal-caller Cam Newton needs center Ryan Kalil (67) to quarterback the offensive line for him. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

But I also wonder about older brother Ryan. The Pro Bowl center barely played in the preseason and is essential.

3. Does the defensive backfield still have big issues?

Brian Hoyer is not Drew Brees or Tom Brady, whom the Panthers will face in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively. But he’s not bad, either. In 200 throws with Chicago last season, Hoyer had six TD passes and zero interceptions.

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer will start against Carolina. With the Chicago Bears in 2016, Hoyer threw 200 passes and had zero interceptions. Jim Mone AP

Hoyer will provide more challenge than you would expect, and the Panthers have to avoid letting him have the sort of day Alex Smith did against New England Thursday night. Cornerback Daryl Worley, who had an uneven August, will be key.

4. Christian McCaffrey isn’t all hype, is he?

McCaffrey is going to be big-time unless he gets hurt – there’s no doubt in my mind about that. But will he be big-time from Day 1?

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey makes his NFL debut Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif., at a stadium only 17 miles from where he starred at Stanford. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

There will be a lot of pressure on the rookie who played at Stanford (only 17 miles from the 49ers’ stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.) and who will get the ball a lot right away on Sunday. McCaffrey can’t afford growing pains – he has already become an integral part of the offense.

5. Can James Bradberry really have a breakout year?

I think the cornerback can – but part of that means making every interception possible and not just batting balls away. Bradberry had two interceptions as a rookie in 2016. His goal for interceptions in 2016?

“I’ll start with three,” Bradberry said, “and go from there.”

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James Bradberry is the Panthers’ best cover corner and seems to be primed for a breakout year, but part of that will involve improving his interception total of two as a rookie in 2016. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

6. Can the old guys can still do it?

Defensive end Julius Peppers (37) and safety Mike Adams (36) are not spring chickens. Neither are linebacker Thomas Davis (34), tight end Greg Olsen (32), Ryan Kalil (32) and defensive end Charles Johnson (31). All can still play. But will their bodies allow them to perform at a high level for an entire season?

7. Can Graham Gano still make a big field goal?

To say fans are frustrated with Gano would be an understatement – I hear more negativity about Gano from Panthers fans than anyone else. Such is the life of an NFL kicker who misses a few clutch ones, and Gano will not regain anyone’s trust completely until he knocks in a couple that are critical. If he misses another game-winner early, that might be the end.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (left) and quarterback Cam Newton both showed up to training camp in very good shape as they try for bounce-back years. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

8. Can Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess get open?

Neither of the Panthers’ starting receivers are close to speed demons. Benjamin had a very good August, is in a contract year and is about to have his best season – at least according to Newton. Funchess was not impressive in August and needs to show more.

9. Can someone on defense get to the quarterback?

Certainly, that should happen. Five of the top nine of the Panthers’ all-time sack leaders are on this team, and all five will play Sunday. This seems like it could be a big year for Mario Addison, in particular.

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Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison (97) led the team in sacks in 2016, including this one of San Diego’s Philip Rivers for a safety in December. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

10. Can the Panthers win the close games?

Last season Carolina got beaten at the buzzer over and over – the Panthers were 2-6 in games decided by three points or fewer. The NFL is built on parity and on games like that, and you have to win at least half the close ones to have a chance at the playoffs.

“We just didn’t close out games last year in the fourth quarter,” Davis said. “But we know how to do that.”

Do they really, though? If so, now is the time to prove it. 

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