Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: The game against the Cowboys is a great opportunity for the Panthers against a team with some similar traits. The Panthers will want to make sure Dallas respects all aspects of their offense, so look for them to be willing to unleash quarterback Cam Newton in a number of ways. They don’t want to overexpose Newton in the rushing attack, but they know if he’s a threat in that area the Cowboys could have trouble keeping tabs on the Carolina offense. It’s also worth noting that Newton will have something to prove with Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott on the other side because there have been comparisons between the two quarterbacks. Look for Newton to try to establish some of his favorite connections, particularly with tight end Greg Olsen.

–Panthers secondary vs. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott. Opponents found cracks in Prescott’s game last season and he will be out to remedy those in his third season in the NFL. Prescott was intercepted 13 times last year after being picked off only four times as a rookie. The Panthers have some questions in the defensive backfield, and those players need to demonstrate that they are capable of taking the next step as well. Despite a pretty good pass rush, the Panthers managed only 10 interceptions last season. What the Panthers plan to do to alter coverages is a little bit of an unknown given that there is a new coordinator with Eric Washington overseeing the defense.

–Panthers LBs vs. Cowboys TEs. The Panthers have been strong at the linebacker position, but there’s a bit of a concern with Thomas Davis serving a four-game NFL ban at the start of the season. Still, this isn’t an area where the Panthers can afford to be exploited. It seems that anything the Cowboys get in terms of production from the tight ends will be viewed as a bonus. Jason Witten is no longer with the Cowboys after a stellar career, so there’s retooling at that spot. The Cowboys might go with Geoff Swaim, who made two catches in 15 games last year. Rico Gathers, a candidate for playing time, faces a charge of marijuana possession barely more than a week before the opener.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Cam Newton. Backup – Taylor Heinicke.

Newton has appeared to be in good form, even healthy enough for a few reckless maneuvers during the preseason. That ought to indicate he is feeling good and ready to put his mark on the season. How Newton meshes with a largely new receiving corps will be worth watching early in the season. The bigger curiosity during the preseason was about the backup because veteran Derek Anderson is no longer on hand. Heinicke won the No. 2 spot in what was considered a close competition with Garrett Gilbert, who was last year’s third-stringer.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters – Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Anderson. Backups – Alex Armah, Cameron Artis-Payne.

Anderson is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season with the Denver Broncos, so despite releasing the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in Jonathan Stewart no decline is expected. In fact, the group needs to pick up the pace, particularly in terms of the ground attack. McCaffrey offers so much more than a traditional tailback and he is more equipped to be a factor catching the ball. Artis-Payne is the type of backup who has proven to be reliable. Armah has spent time in some formations at tight end, so that could be another avenue to get onto the field.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Greg Olsen. Backups – Chris Manhertz, Ian Thomas.

Olsen might be past his prime, but he is still counted on for major production. He is coming off a season in which he was out for an extended period with a foot injury, though he is one of Newton’s favorite targets when the offense is clicking. The Panthers tend to make good use of their tight ends regardless of who is manning that position. Manhertz has time with the team, so that’s a plus. Thomas has shown strides as the team’s fourth-round draft pick in the spring, but he is still considered a project.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith. Backups – DJ Moore, Damiere Byrd, Jarius Wright, Curtis Samuel.

Funchess became the No. 1 receiver last season after the trade of Kelvin Benjamin, but he might have more help this season. The addition of Smith in a trade is considered one of the significant offseason moves after he arrived from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Panthers are looking for explosive plays from this group, something often lacking last year. Moore is a rookie with lots of potential and the knack for picking up things quickly, so he could rise into a major role. Samuel is a second-year player with many tools, but he lacks experience and consistency — some of that stemming from injuries.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Taylor Moton, LG Greg Van Roten, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner, RT Daryl Williams. Backups – LG Amini Silatolu, LG Brendan Mahon, C Tyler Larsen, RT Corey Robinson, LT Matt Kalil (IR/could return later in season).

This group was hit hard by preseason injuries so the Panthers are still trying to fit the pieces together. Moton has been praised for his versatility and he will get a chance to display that in his second season after Matt Kalil was put on injured reserve and will miss at least the first half of the season. It’s quite possible that Williams won’t be ready for the opener as he suffered an MCL and patella injury in late July, so that would automatically complicate things. Ryan Kalil dealt with a neck injury that lingered last year. It appears Silatolu, who would have been a starter at left guard, won’t be available at the start of the season so this could put further kinks in the production of this unit. If Ryan Kalil, who is considered one of the team leaders, returns to form, then there’s reason to be encouraged that this group can excel.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – DE Mario Addison, DT Kawann Short, DT Dontari Poe, DE Wes Horton. Backups – DE Julius Peppers, DT Vernon Butler, DT Kyle Love, DE Bryan Cox Jr., DE Efe Obada, DE Marquis Haynes.

With Addison helping lead the charge and Peppers back for another season as one of the all-time best at pressuring quarterbacks, the Panthers might be able to count this unit as one of the team’s strengths. Poe has been a good addition from Atlanta and has drawn preseason praise, so the front looks solid. Peppers doesn’t practice much, because the goal is to make sure he’s fresh for games. The Panthers continue to wait for Butler, a 2016 first-round draft choice, to emerge as an impact player. His development could determine how good this unit can become.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – OLB Shaq Thompson, MLB Luke Kuechly, OLB David Mayo. Backups – Jermaine Carter, Ben Jacobs, Andre Smith, Jared Norris, LB Thomas Davis (SUS).

There is some shuffling here, but the key is that Kuechly is in the middle. He still rates as one of the NFL’s best defenders. Kuechly had offseason labrum surgery on his left shoulder, but he hasn’t been slowed during the preseason. Thompson moves to the strong side, where Davis would be if not for a four-game NFL suspension to begin the season. This means Mayo moves into a starting role at least temporarily. He has been the primary backup at linebacker for the past season, filling Kuechly’s spot at times. With Mayo in the mix of starters, this does leave questions regarding the second-stringers. Carter and Smith are rookies who might be called upon.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – CB James Bradberry, FS Mike Adams, SS Da’Norris Searcy, CB Donte Jackson. Backups – S Colin Jones, CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Corn Elder, S Rashaan Gaulden, CB Lorenzo Doss.

Bradberry enters his third season after considerable improvement shown during his second season. Depth is a concern on the corners, particularly with the loss of Ross Cockrell, who went out with a training camp injury after he was acquired to provide stability and to compete for a starting role. Adams is a veteran voice in the secondary, so it’s not a unit without an element of experience. Gaulden is a rookie who at times looks capable of making significant contributions, but his consistency could be a concern. Munnerlyn wasn’t always happy with a decreasing role last season so his attitude could be important.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Graham Gano, P Michael Palardy, LS J.J. Jansen, KR/Damiere Byrd.

Gano is coming off a special season and Palardy showed that it was a good choice to keep him in the mix when other options were available. If these players can repeat their production from last season, that would benefit the Panthers considerably. Byrd is capable of making game-changing plays and he will take this role seriously, though it’s possible that McCaffrey might get some shots as well as a returner.

PRACTICE SQUAD: QB Kyle Allen, RB Reggie Bonnafon, WR Mose Frazier, CB Josh Hawkins, G Taylor Hearn, OL Dorian Johnson, CB Cole Luke, DT Kendrick Norton, S Dezmen Southward, TE Jason Vander Laan.