Today is the first game against an opponent this year, and even though preseason games don’t count, there is still much to tune in for. This is usually the part of the year where fans are the most optimistic and excited for the season, as we haven’t been given a chance yet to be reminded that we are fans of the Carolina Panthers. But even considering the team we root for, there is a lot to be optimistic about going into the first preseason game. Last year, the Panthers had the fourth youngest team in the league. There are so many young guys on this team with the potential to develop that fans should be excited, especially when combined with all the new faces added this offseason. The first preseason game will be our first chance as fans to see them in live action, and these are the 5 things I’m keeping an eye on the most:
Baker Mayfield and Matt Corral
Since Cam Newton’s arm imploded a few years ago, there hasn't been much to be optimistic about regarding the Panther’s quarterback situation. 2022 is a complete turnaround, and the fresh faces of Baker Mayfield and Matt Corral inspire new hope in the fanbase. Today is our first opportunity to see them suited up against actual opponents. All reports point towards Mayfield having the advantage over Sam Darnold in the competition for starter (even though we all know Matt Rhule has no choice but to start Mayfield week 1), and a strong performance today may be enough to finally let Mayfield get the majority of first team reps so that he can build rapport with the unit.
Matt Corral may not have a likely path to starting this season, but the young gunslinger has been stringing together a couple weeks of impressive practices and possesses enough raw talent to make fans optimistic about his future. Coming from an RPO-style offense in college, his biggest challenge early will be his ability to read NFL defenses and his ability to take control of an offense. This will be his first test against a defense going full speed, and a solid performance will boost his hype-train even more.
Backup RB Competition
The health of Christian McCaffrey will continue to be doubted until he can actually finish a season healthy. Until then, it is important for the Panthers to have capable depth behind him that can be ready to step in and produce. With the return of Chuba Hubbard and the addition of power back D’Onta Foreman, the Panthers have two guys who they feel comfortable with starting should McCaffrey go down again. These two will be battling all season for snaps, and that competition begins today.
Last year, Hubbard quietly combined for almost 800 yards from scrimmage in 10 starts. He started off the season slower and didn’t look quite ready for the physicality of the league. However, as the season progressed, he started to flash his talent for finding holes in the defense and showed he belonged. Foreman ran even more impressively for the Titans last year, spelling the injured Derrick Henry nicely. He had 700 scrimmage yards in 9 games, including multiple games over 100 rushing yards.
DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson, Terrace Marshall Jr., and Rashard Higgins are all essentially locks to make the roster. Shi Smith and C.J. Saunders have been battling it out during training camp to see who would come away with a spot in the slot, but Saunders’s injury is a huge setback for him and makes it Smith’s spot to lose. Teams usually only keep 6 receivers on the roster, so the rest of the group are going to have to make plays and show the staff they deserve to be on this team. Will one of the veterans of Brandon Zylstra or Andre Roberts get the last spot or will a young player like Derek Wright end up carrying his training camp momentum into the game and earn his spot?
New Offensive Line
After the abysmal performance from the offensive line last season, changes needed to be made. In come the new acquisitions Ikem Ekwonu, Bradley Bozeman, and Austin Corbett. Even though Matt Rhule has continued to play musical chairs with offensive line in camp (just like he did last year), solid performances today could put a stop to that. This offensive line has a ton of potential, but they may struggle early due to lack of cohesion. Rookie Ikem Ekwonu probably isn’t going to look perfect out there and will get beat a few times, but I’m expecting him to maul a defender out of a roster spot this preseason. The team even added James Campen, which gives them a well-respected, veteran coaching presence that we haven’t seen anywhere on the staff in the past few years. It’s been a long time since we saw a capable offensive line unit and a premier left tackle prospect on this team, so this will be an exciting thing to keep an eye on today and throughout the season.
The biggest question this defense has will be its ability to defend against the run. The unit is built on speed over power, which showed mixed results last season. After a historical start to the season against the run last year, the defense allowed nearly 130 yards per game rushing (bottom 10 in the league). They were very hit-or-miss against the run, with 8 games under 100 rushing yards allowed but 5 games over 150 rushing yards allowed.
The good news is that the team added 3 linebackers this offseason who should all get valuable playing time. Rookie Brandon Smith is primarily a coverage linebacker, but Damien Wilson and Cory Littleton are both stout run defenders coming off seasons with 100 tackles. The men up front have also gotten bigger, with Matt Ioannidis being acquired in free agency . He and Derrick Brown will be pivotal pieces in the middle and should be an improvement over last season. Even though losing Haason Reddick to the Eagles in free agency shouldn’t negatively impact their run defense too much, Yetur Gross-Matos will need to step up and play a bigger role this year than he has thus far in his career. The play of Gross-Matos will be one of the biggest things to keep an eye on today and throughout the preseason. If he struggles, expect some new faces in the coming weeks on the perimeter of the defensive line.