Well the time has finally come. The real hitting starts Thursday night.
Both the Ravens and Panthers are—to some extent—are riddled with injuries to begin their preseason kickoff. Looking at both teams, the Panthers have had the worst of the injury bug, as they are missing their most dangerous offensive weapons, while the Ravens have a few key injuries in their secondary.
With that said, there is still room for a football game to break out, hopefully. The Panthers are three point underdogs and I have not seen one so-called handicapper come out with the Panthers picked to win the game, even with the three points Vegas is offering.
But, I disagree. There is a lot of depth the Panthers are going to toy with in this first game and it may just mean a few late scores. But it is preseason, and scores do not matter, right? Well, sort of.
The plays that help move the ball down the field and help to set up long drives are what coaches really want to see. Those types of plays give players a good chance to showcase their talent. But most importantly, long deliberate drives really help coaches better evaluate the talent level they have assembled. However, a nice long touchdown never hurts and the staff does want to see their team "close the deal" and walk away with some type of scoring effort.
So, if all eyes are not on how many touchdowns DeAngelo Williams can run for-what then, will the Panthers' staff be watching? What should fans expect to see? There are really five components the Panthers' staff have to sort out before week one of the regular season comes about. The bulk of the work will be focused around the team's "new" version of their defensive unit, but there will other components that have to be addressed as well.
Since OTA's, the Panthers defensive brain trust has been in the middle of a huge experiment. In the past, it was a pretty sure bet what the roles were in Pantherland. When Kris Jenkins left, Ma'ake Kemoeatu was the new defensive tackle. When Dan Morgan finally left, Jon Beason was the new middle linebacker.
Now, that is not the case.
The coaching staff's prime objective, in this game, and throughout the rest of camp and this preseason, will be to determine which combinations work best on defense. Out of the five things to look for, the first two, in order of importance, are interchangeable.
No. 1: Which two defensive tackles make the best combination?
There are three defensive tackles who are capable of being starters. Between Louis Leonard, Ed Johnson, and Tank Tyler, two have to be chosen to go out of the tunnel as starters on opening day.
While Tank Tyler has had some separation from the pack by having a great camp, Ed Johnson has also shown great penetration on certain plays. Louis Leonard has been banged up and has had limited reps, but he is also a capable starter as well.
Whoever the starters are in this first game may change in the second game. The Panthers would like for all of their defensive tackles to get a shot at lining up against their opponent's first team offense lines during this preseason, and if there is enough time in the coming weeks, that will probably happen.
Another defensive player the Panthers staff really want to see in a game situation is rookie defensive end, Greg Hardy. In practice, Hardy is starting to look more and more like the potential first round pick he was once slated to be. If Hardy is the real thing, he may challenge for playing time right away.
Since, OTA's Hardy has made a name for himself, a good one that is. Hardy came to camp in great shape. He has worked as hard or harder than anyone else on the field, he hustles and most of all, he makes plays consistently.
Hardy makes plays that look very similar to plays Panthers' fans have watched former Panthers defensive end, Julius Peppers, make over the better part of the last decade. There has been a buzz from the Panthers' staff when Hardy flashes his potential during camp. The work ethic and attitude Hardy has displayed, since becoming a Panther, has basically dispelled any type of reputation he may have picked up, after an injury, at LSU.
Last week, when Jon Beason was asked, "who has really stood out in practice so far?" Beason answered, "Greg Hardy." That is a lot of respect from a guy who demands his teammates earn everything they get.
No. 2: Can Dan Connor be the new man in the middle?
Jon Beason has moved over to the weak side linebacker, or the Will, position and in the Panthers' Tampa Two defense, the Will linebacker will be the player left to go out and make plays. Beason could stack up some impressive numbers this season, but a short conversation with Jon and you quickly find out that the middle is where he would prefer to be, though he will gladly play anywhere they tell him to.
So, all eyes, from the Panthers' coaching sky box to every offensive and defensive coach on the sideline will be looking at Dan Connor as Ray Rice comes his way. Will Connor bring him down or will Connor be run over by a quickly closing Rice? It should be interesting to watch this version of "the game within the game."
Also, can Connor cover the Ravens' tight ends when Flacco dumps off the short passes over the middle? Again, those are answers the Panthers are dying to find out.
Now, as far as Connor goes, he is not the fastest, biggest, or strongest middle linebacker the league has seen. However, Connor knows the defense, and the Panthers' coaching staff hopes the same Dan Connor who set Penn State's all-time record for tackles can translate that success to the pro level this season.
If the combination of linebackers is not producing what John Fox and company want, watch for former Bear Jamar Williams to take the Will position (Williams' normal position while in Chicago as a backup). This would pave the way for Beason to move back inside to the middle or Mike linebacker slot and Connor will be allowed to resume his special teams and backup roles.
No. 3: Who will step up and fill the No. 2 receiver slot?
It seems, from training camp, the Panthers have found their No. 2 man in Brandon LaFell. Rarely does a rookie wide receiver translate collegiate success to the NFL in the first season, but LaFell has shown speed, great route running, advanced blocking skills, and much better hands than anyone on the staff ever expected and those attributes are what is going to land the young rookie on the starting roster, that is, if Lafell can simply show off some of the talent he has displayed in training camp and apply on gameday, over the next four weeks.
LaFell has the tools and, in a way, looks similar to a young Muhsin Muhammad. While the position is still open—Kenny Moore and Dwayne Jarrett have a very slim chance to take the position—it really seems it may just be Lafell's to lose.
After Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards (because of his pending punt return duties and hopeful future potential), and very possibly, Wallace Wright (because he has some experience, but most importantly because he is quality special teams player), the field of players vying for a wide receiver's position is log-jammed, and there may only be one other receiver's position left.
The Panthers have only carried four receivers in the past, and there is some real decision making to go on here. Former second round pick Dwayne Jarrett has done just so-so in training camp, and the Panthers just littered the NFL free agent market with average or so-so players in offseason.
Understand, the Panthers are not above cutting Dwayne Jarrett.
Seemingly, both Kenny Moore and Brandon Lafell have done better jobs in camp, and there is some raw talent on the current roster which may just spell the end of Dwayne's career as a Panther. What makes it hard is the fact Jarrett has the occasional flash and makes those around think, "Okay, now he is ready," but then a few plays later, he seems lost on the field.
Until he was injured, Trent Guy was having a great camp, and former Baylor Bear, David Gettis is showing he can play the position, but is in need of refinement. Gettis will get reps during preseason, but unless he turns his game level way up, he will fight a huge uphill battle trying to earn a roster spot. His near future with the Panthers may just have the practice squad waiting on the other side of training camp.
No. 4: With the plethora of QBs on the roster, who should go and who should stay?
Tony Pike is a project, but the Panthers knew this when they drafted him. He had success playing collegiate football at Cincinnati, but he is nowhere near NFL game- readiness. Now, Hunter Cantwell is currently the Panthers No. 2 quarterback.
However, to be fair, Clausen was allowed to share reps with Cantwell at practice this week, which really makes Clausen sort of a No. 2B on the depth chart, although he will be listed as the third quarterback for the first game.
The problem for Cantwell is that he now becomes expendable if things continue at their current pace, meaning that if Clausen continues to simply maintain and not implode, his status is solid as the No. 2 quarterback. And if Pike can connect on a few passes facing third-string defenses and keep a pulse at practice, it will make it hard for Cantwell to survive on this roster.
The feeling is Tony Pike would not last if placed on the Panthers' practice squad, and there is not room for a fourth quarterback with all of the needs this team has. The Panthers do believe Pike has the size and skills to play at the NFL level, but he will have to learn the system like the back of his hand, adjust to the speed of the pro game, and he will have to hone his throwing motion.
These are all things a quarterback coach can eventually fix, but it takes time, and that is time the Panthers will have later if both Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen can stay healthy.
But face it, if both the starting quarterback and backup were to go down early in the season, for any team, things tend to get very bad, as many Panthers' fans will remember all too well. A season like that is usually a pretty solid, on-the-job learning experience for a guy like Pike.
Plus, the Panthers also used a draft pick to get Pike, and if you have not noticed, John Fox is rather notorious for holding onto his drafted players until they totally sputter.
Now with that said, there is enough time for Cantwell to simply have the game of his of his life this week and every week of the preseason. If he doesn't make a single mistake at camp, can he make the roster? Sure, there is a chance.
There is also the chance that Pike or Cantwell could get slightly dinged up and be placed on injured reserve, pretty much handing the other player the roster spot. But the truth is, there is barely room for a third quarterback on the Panthers' final roster, and to keep four quarterbacks with the injuries elsewhere on the team would not be wise.
No. 5: Will the addition of some potent special teams players make a difference?
Gone are the days when the Panthers could allow opposing teams to return punts and kicks as if the Panthers were playing two-hand touch. The Panthers have signed some effective players for their special team units and are feeling very good about what they have seen so far.
The team will be looking at kick and punt returners as well. Tyrell Sutton seems to have the kick return job pinned down for now, and the team actually has depth at both the kick and punt return positions. Rookie Armanti Edwards will get a shot at returning punts, along with rookie Davis Gettis, and even Captain Munnerlyn may be on the receiving end of a punt.
In closing, the popular topic seems to be what Armanti Edwards and Jimmy Clausen can do on the field, it is not likely they will both be the top priority of the Panthers' coaching staff. Their jobs are not in the balance if they do not do well. Of course the Panthers staff wants to see Cluasen look like a pro, but a few bad throws will not hurt him.
Clausen is somewhat of a given commodity. He has shown the it-factor in practice, and could easily show some of his talent in this game, that is, if a banged up offensive line will give him time to do so. However, if he stumbles, it's no big deal.
If Armanti Edwards gets the ball in the open field, there may be some magic, otherwise, the coaching staff is just hoping he can get comfortable with hanging on to the ball once he catches it and takes a hit or two.