Yes, it is only the preseason, but damned if it still isn't sweet to have football back. The summer months can be a real drag if you are not into baseball, so when August finally hits, you know it is close to live football action. For the Carolina Panthers, defending NFC Conference Champions, the road to a second straight Super Bowl appearance starts here. To quickly reminisce, it is still amazing to me how potent this offense was last year given the absence of WR Kelvin Benjamin. QB Cam Newton elevated not only his game, but the game of everyone around him and destroyed teams one by one despite the limitations placed on the offense.
Fast forward to the present day, and one has to be excited about the teams chances to not only repeat and make it to the Super Bowl, but to take the next step and bring the Lombardi Trophy home to the Carolinas. Observers this preseason though haven't been too impressed with the Panthers offense, noting that the defense has been the star so far, picking off passes and breaking up plays. It is only practice though, and it can be difficult to tell if the defense is just that good, the offense is really rusty or some other reason is to blame. In any case, it will be great to see the team out there facing off against the Baltimore Ravens.
Panthers Passing Offense
The main headline for game 1 of the preseason is going to be the return of Kelvin Benjamin to the field. After missing all of last year after a freak non-contact ACL tear in a practice scrimmage against the Miami Dolphins, fans, coaches and perhaps most of all Cam Newton, will be very happy to see him suit up for action. What I have seen and heard out of training camp so far is that Benjamin hasn't shown much in terms of rust, despite his long absence due to injury. It will be a good chance to see how far along or how far Benjamin has to go to be ready for Week 1 of the regular season.
The other factor to keep in mind is how Benjamin being in the lineup will effect Newton. Now the first game of the preseason will hardly show us what we need to know, but it will give us a glimpse at how he will change his play style with his #1 WR back in the fold. Many argued last season that the loss of Benjamin forced Newton to mature and find the best option on the field rather than force it to the biggest target running through the defense. With Newton taking that extra step in his maturation process as an elite QB, one can only imagine how dangerous he will be now.
Panthers Rushing Defense
We all know how effective RB Jonathan Stewart and FB Mike Tolbert are at running the ball. Throw in a read option for Newton here and there and you have one of the nastiest rushing attacks in the NFL. While the main part of the rushing attack is set, the RB backup position is far from set. The Panthers will likely carry three RBs into the regular season, however the problem is there are three players vying for two spots: RB's Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne and Brandon Wegher. Whittaker burst onto the scene two years ago as a journeyman RB who stuck when the team needed injury depth at the RB position. Artis-Payne, a draft pick last season, was a pleasant surprise, stepping into the starting role for Stewart in the late second half of the season and scoring the first touchdown of his career. Meanwhile Wegher, who only dressed for one game but never saw the field, is a fan favorite and a dark horse for making the final 53.
Smart money would likely say that Whittaker as a vet and Artis-Payne as a stronger second year player are the locks for the backup spots. In reality though, I would bet that the only safe one of this group is Artis-Payne (unless he has a monumental screwup). The real battle will be between Whittaker and Wegher. Wegher was impressive during last year's preseason, and it helped earn the undrafted free agent a spot on the final 53 man roster. Whittaker hasn't done a whole lot to impress other than being reliable in not turning the ball over. Another strong showing by Wegher this preseason would likely vault him into getting a jersey each gameday.
Player to Watch
WR Kelvin Benjamin: You know it has to be Benjamin. Everyone wants to see him back on the field and catching passes from Newton, even if it is just one series. Just knowing that Benjamin is healthy and back to football shape will be worth watching the game.
While it is an important game, it is only the first preseason game. The vets will only play a series or two, leaving us to watch the usual game of attrition between 2nd, 3rd and 4th string players. It is still football though, and it will go a long way in helping determine the depth for this team which as we all know if vitally important to the team's success. In any case, it is Panthers football, and I am absolutely thrilled it is back. I have a sneaky suspicion you are as well.