This is it.
Exhibition game number three: the “Super Bowl of the Preseason”, you could say.
Jokes aside, this game will be a great test for Ron Rivera and the 2019 Carolina Panthers. The Patriots, who will once again contend for a Lombardi Trophy (that’s 19 years running, now), have a few new wrinkles and pieces to prepare for–a rookie EDGE player from Michigan has caught our eye. More on him shortly.
On the Panthers side, tonight marks the live-game action return of the franchise’s cornerstone pieces: quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly. Both veterans have been inactive for Carolina’s two preseason games strictly as a precautionary measure.
The same goes for running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen, both set to start tonight.
The expectation, as we offer this analysis at lunchtime on game day, is that all four men will play this evening. However, this is the NFL, and things can change by the hour. Stay tuned.
Now, on to the six-pack:
1. Cam Newton. Let’s See It.
We have chronicled the progress of Newton through close examination from our camp coverage in Spartanburg earlier this month. Thus far, the results have been encouraging. Newton looks to have a strong handle on the offense–year two of the Norv Turner regime–taking command of the huddle with better tempo. His arm? The arm is a treat to watch in action. Day after day, Newton was dropping dimes on 7’s (post-corner routes) , 8’s (post routes) and 9’s (fly routes), lobbing gorgeous spirals with precise timing, in-step with receivers Curtis Samuel, D.J. Moore and Olsen. What I took interest in, more than those throws, were the short/intermediate high-velocity rockets required from a staple of the offense: RPO outside zone play action pass. Rivera let Cam loose on these, more than we anticipated at camp. The velocity and placement looked crisp, a great sign following a much-publicized off season surgery on his throwing shoulder. We want to see a few of these throws from Cam tonight, in tight windows, to see if the muscle memory is there in live-game action.
2. Chase Winovich. Block This Guy.
In order for Newton–or any of the Panthers’ four quarterbacks—to have any chance of showcasing their array of talents tonight, Carolina must account for the man who, thus far, appears to be the steal of the 2019 NFL Draft: DE/EDGE rush terror Chase Winovich. A first-team all Big Ten star at the University of Michigan, Winovich has been relentless his first professional camp, and tore a hole through the Titans’ offensive game plan last week. Here’s a look, courtesy of the NFL:
He’s playing both right and left EDGE positions, so a wide array of Panthers tackles will get a good look at the rookie sensation. In typical Patriots fashion, Winovich is listed fourth on their depth chart. I have a sneaking suspicion that you may see New England head coach Bill Belichick employ Winovich earlier in the rotation, perhaps to neutralize the ground threat that Newton could present. Either way–this is a big-time player who offers a big-time test to Carolina’s edge blockers.
3. Allen. Grier. The other guy.
The media has largely ignored Panthers fourth-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke during camp and the preseason. But with the shoddy play last week from second-year backup Will Allen, and the seemingly perpetual struggles from third-round pick Will Grier, Heinicke has a chance to work his way closer to a roster spot with another good performance tonight. Now, will the Panthers ditch Grier–the draft pick–for the journeyman who has one career start? Highly unlikely. But let’s be clear: Grier has outplayed exactly zero quarterbacks this preseason. It’s not completely unexpected, but my expectations were certainly higher than this. He’s tossed a pair of very bad interceptions, one returned for a score. He seems to lack confidence in the pocket, often bailing for the scramble a shade too early in my view. Accuracy has been lacking, particularly on the boundary. This is a big night for the rookie. It’s also key for Allen, who may find himself more vulnerable to missing the 53-man roster with another poor performance tonight.
4. Nickel For Your Thoughts.
As the Patriots will employ a wide variety of personnel packages offensively, the battle for nickelback will begin to take shape. Off-season acquisition and camp standout Javien Elliott remains our personal favorite to land the starting role. He has picked off Newton in practice, and has come up with several impressive PBU’s. Elliott sticks in coverage, and runs in-step the quickest of the Panthers receivers in simulated action. We also want to see what Corn Elder can bring to the table against a New England offense which will rely heavily upon quick throws to slot receivers. And don’t forget about the “buffalo nickel” package, as FS Rashaan Gaulden will continue to see action against anticipated 11-personnel runs and anticipated 12-personnel pass plays.
5. Slye’s Chance to Shine
We don’t want to make too much of this, so let’s just start by saying: Graham Gano is the Panthers’ kicker. He’s earned as much, particularly on the very field from which the Panthers will play tonight: Gano authored a 48-yard walk-off game/winner against the Patriots in 2017. However, rookie replacement Joey Slye has made the best of his opportunity in place of Gano, who continues to nurse what’s being called “leg soreness”. Slye’s impressive leg boomed a 55-yard field goal against Chicago in Carolina’s preseason opener. He has a high-arc on his kicks, something we took note of early in camp. He might just be made of the stuff, mentally and physically, to be a go-to kicker in the NFL. As we continue to monitor Gano’s health, keep an eye on Slye. If he doesn’t stick here, I find it hard to believe a league plagued with poor place kicking wont find him a permanent home.
6. Hogan Returns Home.
Panthers receiver Chris Hogan spent the past three seasons as one of Tom Brady’s go-to weapons in New England, collecting a pair of Super Bowl rings in the process. It’s time to unwrap this off-season acquisition and see exactly where he fits into Turner’s offensive scheme. Hogan has seen limited targets thus far. It feels like the right time to move him around and see where he can make the biggest impact for the Panthers. Will he play the slot, a position he didn’t necessarily favor as a Patriot? Might we see Hogan on the boundary, where he led all NFL WR’s in 2018 in yards of separation at the point of catch/incompletion (4.1 yards per snap). Hogan was an active member of the punt return unit at Camp Wofford–perhaps he gets a few reps there tonight? Hogan is an important piece to what Carolina wants to do offensively in 2019. We’re eager to see him go against his former team in a key preseason audition.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET tonight. Follow along with us all game on TWITTER.