5 Things to Watch in the Carolina Panthers' Preseason Debut
Carolina Panthers fans have had August 11, 2012 circled on their calendars since the preseason schedules were announced earlier this year. The NFL preseason officially arrives in the Carolinas tonight when the Panthers host the Houston Texans at Bank of America Stadium.
Most of the starters for each team will play only a few series and nearly all of them will finish their nights by the end of the first quarter. On a Panthers team with plenty of position battles all over the field, there will still be plenty for Carolina fans to pay attention to once Cam Newton and Steve Smith have taken off their pads.
Here are five things to look for in the Carolina Panthers' first preseason game of 2012.
Battle of the Cornerbacks
Captain Munnerlyn had a rough season in his first year as a full-time starting cornerback for the Carolina Panthers in 2011.
Munnerlyn was burned for the third-highest completion percentage against (65 percent according to STATS LLC) among NFL cornerbacks targeted 60 times or more.
Rookie cornerback Josh Norman and second-year defensive back Brandon Hogan each have an opportunity to unseat Munnerlyn for the starting cornerback position opposite Chris Gamble before the season begins.
Hogan has been out of action with leg problems for most of training camp and Norman only returned to practice on Thursday after injuring his hamstring during the first week of camp.
A third upstart, Darius Butler, has also played well the past couple of weeks and he could play his way into the competition with a solid performance tonight.
Though Gamble is the Panthers' top defender against the passing game, Butler, Munnerlyn and Norman are the ones to watch tonight against quarterbacks Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates.
Wide Receivers Trying to Make the Team
Most of the offseason and preseason talk about Carolina Panthers receivers has focused on Brandon LaFell's ability to take over the No. 2 spot, how well David Gettis will play once he returns to the field and the acquisition of Louis Murphy right before training camp began.
However, the most interesting discussion is figuring out which receivers will make the team.
Fourth-round draft pick Joe Adams and second-year receiver/kick returner Kealoha Pilares seem to be locks to make the team along with LaFell, Gettis, Murphy and, of course, Steve Smith.
I originally projected the Panthers to keep six wideouts on the active 53-man roster once the regular season began. With defensive tackle Andre Neblett suspended for the first four games of the season, they could have seven active receivers on the final roster.
Seyi Ajirotutu has had a good camp to date. He's battling with Armanti Edwards and Darvin Adams for Carolina's final wide receiver slot.
If Ajirotutu makes the team, he will likely be ahead of Joe Adams and Pilares on the depth chart to start the season.
Keep an eye on Carolina's wideouts tonight to see which one emerges as a front runner to make the team.
Luke Kuechly's NFL Debut
I don't know about you, but I am ready to see Luke Kuechly in a Carolina Panthers uniform that doesn't have the Pepsi logo on it.
Kuechly has been getting rave reviews so far in training camp and he showed off his big play ability in front of several thousand fans in both of Carolina's practices at Bank of America Stadium this year.
Kuechly had a pick-six off of Jimmy Clausen during the team's public OTA practice in June and he intercepted Cam Newton last weekend at Fan Fest 2012.
The rookie linebacker has shown a knack for tipping passes and stuffing ball carriers at the line of scrimmage in training camp practices as well.
However, tonight will be the first time Panthers fans will see Kuechly play against another NFL team and he could end up selling a few No. 59 jerseys with an impactful performance in his professional debut.
Jimmy Clausen's Return to Action
Jimmy Clausen, the Panthers' starting quarterback as a rookie in 2010, did not dress for a single game in 2011 despite being a member of the team's active 53-man roster.
He should see plenty of action on Saturday, though, with Cam Newton and most of the starters only expected to play a couple of series in Carolina's first preseason game.
Clausen's rookie season with the Panthers was so abysmal that he will likely never get a shot at even securing the backup role with the team that drafted him.
However, every opportunity Clausen has to put himself on game film is worth its weight in gold as an audition for other NFL teams in need of a solid backup quarterback.
It is not too late for Clausen to get his career back on track if he plays well on Saturday and throughout the rest of the preseason.
Carolina's special teams were the worst in the NFL last season and they were a key area of focus during the offseason.
The Panthers drafted punt returner Joe Adams and punter Brad Nortman in April while signing veterans Mike Tolbert, Haruki Nakamura and Kenny Onatolu to improve their coverage units.
Carolina also brought in Justin Medlock and Nick Harris to compete with Olindo Mare and Nortman for the kicking and punting jobs.
Medlock and Mare will share kicking duties tonight and in an interesting twist, neither kicker will know whose turn it is to take the field until Rivera sends them out there to attempt a field goal or extra point as the situation arises.
The Panthers are counting on a much improved special teams group in 2012 and tonight will be the first opportunity for Panthers fans to see how well those investments will pay off.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the NFL and the Carolina Panthers for Bleacher Report since 2008.