If joint training camp practices between the Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills were the appetizer, consider Friday night the main course.
After two days of intense workouts at Wofford College in Spartanburg, the two teams will meet again in Carolina’s first preseason game this year at Bank of America Stadium. For “Carolina North” and the number of former ex-Panthers now in Buffalo — including coach Sean McDermott, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Kurt Coleman — it’ll be more homecoming than true road game.
And while Panthers fans will certainly enjoy seeing those familiar faces, there certainly are pressing issues on their own team worth monitoring. Here are five things to keep an eye on this Friday:
1. How much will starters, including Cam Newton, play?
“To be determined” would be the technical answer, as coach Ron Rivera told reporters on Wednesday that the team hadn’t yet finalized a plan for how many reps players would receive.
That said, Rivera did indicate he expected starters to get at least some action. And when pressed about the availability of quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly, he said he’d like it if everyone got the chance to be on the football field. however, a league source confirmed Friday afternoon that neither Newton or Kuechly will play against the Bills.
After Rivera opted not to play any of his offensive or defensive starters in the team’s first preseason game against Chicago — safety Tre Boston did play, but in limited snaps — expect to see more of the first team this time around.
2. How does Brian Burns’ ankle injury impact the defensive end/outside linebacker rotation?
The rookie pass rusher left practice early on Tuesday after tweaking his ankle, and then worked on the side Wednesday before camp broke. Given Burns’ two sacks in only 10 snaps in the team’s preseason opener, there was anticipation to see what he could do in more extended work against Buffalo.
But now, Burns’ status is more up in the air. He said on Wednesday that he had a “slight bruise” on his ankle and fully expected to play Friday, but of course that decision isn’t his to make. And given the team’s cautious handling of Kuechly as he returned from a slight dust-up earlier in camp, it wouldn’t be surprising if Burns’ snaps were more limited.
Realistically, if Burns doesn’t play, it shouldn’t be made into a big deal. Burns was the No. 16 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, and the team doesn’t want to be reckless with that sort of investment. With about three weeks until the regular season, there’s no rush to get him back in time for games that don’t matter.
Really, his injury has more of an impact on the guys behind him on the depth chart. Expect Marquis Haynes to get more snaps instead, and the same for Christian Miller and Sione Teuhema. Haynes especially will have a chance to boost his standing, although his two sacks versus the Bears already did that to some extent.
3. Jordan Scarlett’s race for the backup running back job
A back injury kept Scarlett, Carolina’s fifth-round pick out of Florida, from playing in the first preseason game. Instead, he had to stream the contest on his cellphone from his tiny dorm in Spartanburg.
But Friday, Scarlett will be one of the more-watched players. He has displayed better-than-advertised hands after close work with running backs coach Jake Peetz, and his blend of size and strength would make him an apt complement behind Christian McCaffrey.
That said, backup running back is one of the tighter roster competitions. Cameron Artis-Payne is a valuable special teamer and has spent four years with the team. Reggie Bonnafon excels out of the backfield, and his college experience at quarterback and receiver makes him a unique gadget option. Then there’s Elijah Holyfield, who fumbled early against Chicago but came back and scored two touchdowns.
In his first live action, Scarlett will need to make a statement to regain his standing as a potential backup to McCaffrey.
4. The Joey Slye-Graham Gano situation
Another preseason game, another week off for Graham Gano. The Panthers kicker missed the last four games of last season with a plant leg injury, and recently in camp, he’s been limited by a similar “sore leg,” according to Rivera.
So the team went and signed former Virginia Tech kicker Joey Slye to handle camp duties, the first step on Slye’s path toward fulfilling a longtime promise. Slye went 3 for 3 against the Bears, highlighted by a 55-yard field goal that never wavered.
Rivera has consistently denied that this is a competition, even as Slye will again handle kicking duties against the Bills. Rivera said a healthy Gano “absolutely” is the Panthers’ best option, although he admitted Slye is proving he belongs in the NFL.
Realistically, the Panthers are hoping Slye continues to excel so they can use him as a trade asset. The Vikings traded a fifth-round pick to the Ravens for kicker Kaare Vedvik this week, and there are still several teams — the Bears and Jets come to mind — that could use kicking help. If Slye impresses again Friday, Carolina might be able to turn him into an extra pick.
5. Who stands out at nickel cornerback?
This is the last real starting spot up for grabs, so yeah, we’ll be watching Friday.
Corn Elder, Javien Elliott, Ross Cockrell and even Rashaan Gaulden have gotten looks at nickel corner in camp, and yet, it doesn’t feel like the team is entirely sure where it stands at that position. For my money, Elliott has been the most impressive because of his combination of ball skills and pro experience.
Cockrell is the rare player who could slot in anywhere in the defensive backfield, and that sort of depth is incredibly valuable. As for Elder, the team recently has been trying him more outside, and that would help his chances of making the roster. Gaulden seems like a natural fit for the team’s “big nickel” package, which should be in play about 25 to 30 percent of the time. Linebacker Shaq Thompson filled that role in 2018, so Gaulden’s physicality will be an asset there as he continues learning the intricacies of a safety.
But again, this is what the preseason is for. If any of those four separates themselves, it would go a long ways toward ending that battle.