Panthers-Buccaneers Preview

JOHN KOSIK (STATS Editor)
The Associated Press

The Carolina Panthers opened 1-3 in 2013 before winning 11 of their final 12 games to earn the NFC South crown and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

After an offseason that brought major roster changes, including the loss of the franchise's longest-tenured player, the Panthers will try to get off to a stronger start Sunday when they open 2014 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The biggest question marks for Carolina (12-4) entering Week 1 are the health of star quarterback Cam Newton, who had offseason ankle surgery and also fractured several ribs in a preseason game, and the status of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy.

Hardy faces a six-game suspension under the NFL's new domestic violence policy. He has appealed a July 15 conviction on misdemeanor charges of assaulting a female and communicating threats and has a trial date set for Nov. 17 - during the team's bye week.

Losing Hardy, who led the Panthers with 15 sacks last season, would be a blow to the defense, but Carolina has some depth on the line. Second-year tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short were solid on the interior as rookies in 2013, while end Charles Johnson is coming off an 11-sack season.

Johnson, though, has been hampered by a hamstring injury, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, is likely to play the early portion of the season with a cast on his sprained right thumb.

"That's the nature of the game," said reigning NFL coach of the year Ron Rivera. "This could happen in the regular season and we have to adapt. It's basically the next man up."

The most pressing concern for the Panthers is Newton, who in his third season finished with 3,379 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Rivera was more optimistic about his quarterback's chances of playing after Newton took all of his reps at practice Friday. Rivera said he "took the next step" in his recovery process but reiterated that a decision won't be made on Newton's status until Sunday.

"Cam is a fighter and a leader and there ain't nothing that is going to hold that guy back," left tackle Byron Bell said. "He looked good out there throwing the ball and calling plays and it looked like he hasn't lost a step. So we as an offensive line have to keep him upright against Tampa Bay and we should be fine."

Newton now seems to be the team's unquestioned leader after the release of Steve Smith, who set nearly every team receiving record during his 13 seasons in Carolina.

Also gone are Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr., leaving Newton with a host of new receivers including veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant along with first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, who helped Florida State win the national title last season.

The offense is also hoping for the resurgence of Jonathan Stewart after the running back played in only 15 games over the last two years because of injuries. Stewart had 3,500 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns over his first four seasons and a return to that type of production would help ease the pressure on Newton and his new targets.

The group gets its first chance to jell against Tampa Bay, which brought in former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith after a 4-12 debacle under Greg Schiano last season.

The defensive-minded Smith and coordinator Leslie Frazier have some solid pieces to work with, including tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David, cornerback Alterraun Verner and safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson.

McCoy and David are two of the league's finest players at their respective positions and give Tampa Bay a good chance to limit points and stuff the run.

"It's easy to get excited about this opportunity," Frazier said of the defense.

The offense is where things get a bit murky for the Bucs. The receiving corps has potential with returning veteran Vincent Jackson and first-round pick Mike Evans, who are both 6-foot-5 and could cause matchup headaches for opposing defenses.

What could hold them back, however, is the quarterback situation and an offensive line that looked dreadful in the preseason.

The current starter under center is Josh McCown, who's spent most of his 11 seasons as a backup but played very well for Chicago last year when Jay Cutler was hurt. It seems unlikely, though, that he'll duplicate the 108.2 rating he posted in those five starts.

If Doug Martin can anchor a strong ground attack, McCown may not have to do too much.

Tampa Bay addressed its weak O-line by trading for six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, but revealed just how desperate the situation is by talking with lineman Richie Incognito, the central figure in the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal last year.

Still, the Buccaneers are confident they can end a six-year playoff drought despite playing in a very competitive NFC South.

"People laugh about it right now, but it's the belief you've got to have. I'm living proof of it," said tackle Clinton McDonald, who won the Super Bowl with the Seahawks last season. "Coming from Seattle, when I first went over there, we weren't Super Bowl ready. But the belief in it every year, and the work ethic every year, allowed us to get there."