Carolina Panthers

Panthers mailbag: Return duties? Defending the Rams? Breakout candidate on defense?

(RE)MARKS: The house of Cam Newton and co.

The Panthers offensive line will make or break them in 2019. They are the foundation for Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and the rest of the offense. In this episode, we break down the front five.
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The Panthers offensive line will make or break them in 2019. They are the foundation for Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and the rest of the offense. In this episode, we break down the front five.

The 2019 NFL season officially kicked off Thursday night, but the Carolina Panthers won’t have to wait long to get in on the fun.

They’ll host the Los Angeles Rams, the reigning NFC champions, Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in what should be one of the weekend’s better games. There are plenty of story lines surrounding the matchup — everything from how Carolina will block two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, to Cam Newton’s surgically-repaired throwing shoulder, to defending the Rams’ fast-paced offense — but all those answers will play themselves out in short order.

The Panthers enter the game relatively healthy. Coach Ron Rivera confirmed Friday that starting defensive end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (hamstring) will not play, and neither will rookie tackle Greg Little (concussion protocol). But other than those two, no players showed up on the team’s final injury report.

Now the only thing left to do is play the game. Well, that and answer a few final questions in this week’s mailbag:

1. With Greg Little out, what are the contingency plans at OT?

Asked this exact question on Friday, Rivera had little clarification to offer, saying just that the team would figure it out Sunday. That may be the case — and preferably the Panthers wouldn’t need their backup tackles to play at all — but there still has to be some sort of plan going in.

The team traded up to select Little in the second round of April’s NFL Draft with the goal of him developing into a long-term left tackle, but this season, he’s largely expected to be a swing tackle in case of other injuries. There isn’t a lot of depth behind him. Sixth-round rookie Dennis Daley has impressed coaches this summer and would be an option should either Daryl Williams or Taylor Moton go down, as would Brandon Greene. But this isn’t a position where the Panthers want to test their depth Week 1.

2. Will the Panthers be able to manage the Rams’ slot receivers? That seemed to be a struggle this preseason.

An important caveat to remember about the preseason: It’s the preseason.

It is true that the Panthers struggled to defend Bills receiver Cole Beasley earlier in August. That said, neither Luke Kuechly nor Shaq Thompson played that game, so Beasley was mostly going against backups Jermaine Carter Jr. and Andre Smith. The team likes what those young ‘backers offer in terms of depth, but they’re not the same caliber as Kuechly or Thompson.

This question could extend to how the Panthers will manage the Rams’ receivers period. Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods make up one of the league’s better pairs, and Cooper Kupp is as dangerous a third receiver as there is on any team. While the speedy Donte Jackson seemingly will draw more time on Cooks, he and James Bradberry should rotate throughout the game. Javien Elliott will get plenty of work as the starting nickel — his battle with Cupp is an underrated story line — although Rashaan Gaulden will also get time in “big nickel” packages.

Remember: The Rams sported the 5th-best passing offense in football in 2018, so this is definitely a test for the Panthers.

Rams receiver Robert Woods is part of why Los Angeles sports one of the NFL’s top passing attacks. Robert Gauthier TNS

3. Who will be returning punts and kickoffs this Sunday?

Rivera said Friday a number of guys have been in the mix at returner, but recent arrival Ray-Ray McCloud stands out here.

New Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud (14) should see reps as the team’s primary punt returner on Sunday. David T. Foster III

McCloud figures to get the first look at punt returner Sunday, and that’s the reason the team claimed him off waivers from Buffalo. Behind him, backup running back Reggie Bonnafon is an option, as is receiver Chris Hogan.

Bonnafon also is among the frontrunners at kick returner. If I had to put money down now, I’d say McCloud takes punts and Bonnafon handles kicks.

4. What player/position needs to take a big step forward this year for the Panthers to return to an elite defense?

It’s hard to pick any one position, but this is a critical year for the entire secondary.

Bradberry is in a contract year, and while the team values him as a high-level starter, he’s yet to show the ball skills through three seasons to confirm he’s among the NFL’s elite. Jackson has speed and ball skills for days, but his technique broke down over the second half of the year last season and teams were able to take advantage of him. Meanwhile at safety, this is Eric Reid’s first offseason with the team, and Tre Boston has only been back in town for about a month.

Which means there’s still a lot to be learned about this unit. And there’s no easing into the season for them either, with matchups against two top-5 passing offenses in the span of five days (the Panthers host Tampa Bay on Thursday).

With the additions along the defensive line and a scheme change designed to ramp up the pass rush, it’ll be up to the secondary to create turnover and take advantage of Carolina’s revamped front seven.

5. What do you think the narrative around the Panthers is at midseason?

Tough to say without my handy dandy crystal ball, but I have thoughts:

Realistically, this Panthers team should contend for the playoffs. Elite talent at several key positions — quarterback, running back, defensive line and linebacker, to name a few — can compensate for a lack of depth, but only up to a point. Much of the story of the 2019 Carolina Panthers will hinge on quarterback Cam Newton’s shoulder, and whether it deteriorates in the winter like it did last season.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) was a full practice participant all week as he prepares to face the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. David T. Foster III

That shouldn’t be an issue over the first half of the season, and the Panthers’ schedule is back-loaded, with games against the Saints and Falcons in four of the final seven weeks of the season. Carolina will need to build itself a cushion through September and October if they want any shot at the playoffs come winter — especially if Newton’s shoulder doesn’t hold up.

I predicted this Panthers team could win anywhere from 7-10 games this season. If it’s the upper end of that spectrum, and Carolina is in the playoff conversation late into December, it’ll be because of a strong first two months.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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