Cam Newton’s preseason debut won’t be a cameo, but how long the Carolina Panthers quarterback plays Thursday against the New England Patriots is still undetermined.
“A lot of it will be about the flow of the game more than anything else,” coach Ron Rivera said, after Newton was held out of preseason games against the Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills. “Ideally, you’d like to have several — three or four — really good possessions and then you’d go from there and make your assessment.”
Newton had offseason shoulder surgery on his throwing arm. The injury severely limited his arm strength during the second half of last season. Newton was typically held out of throwing in practice and ultimately sat out the last two games of 2018.
The Panthers have been cautious in managing his return; typically, Newton has gotten a day off from throwing in practice every three days. But he has demonstrated good arm strength over the past month and threw in both joint practices with the Bills, which resembled game conditions in every way except full-scale tackling.
Starters don’t typically play in the final preseason game, so Thursday will likely be eight-season veteran Newton’s only game action before the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 8.
Rivera said he won’t feel any special anxiety putting Newton back in a game.
“You just never know. It’s crazy how things happen,” Rivera said. “You’ve just got to go out and play football and hope for the best.”
Rivera said the Patriots won’t hold back in how they rush Newton, just as the Panthers wouldn’t take it easy on the Patriots because it’s the preseason. Every team is refining tactics they’ll need in the regular season, particularly in the third preseason game, when teams typically game plan for specific opponents.
“People blitz,” Rivera said. “It’s part of the football game, and it’s something you have to do in preparing your team.”
Positions up for grabs
Kyle Allen will again be listed as No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart, but Rivera clearly isn’t yet ready to name Allen the backup. So the competition with rookie Will Grier looks to continue through the final preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Other positional competitions, beyond backup quarterback:
▪ Who ends up as the Panthers’ primary nickel cornerback. Javien Elliott, Corn Elder, Rashaan Gaulden and Ross Cockrell have all gotten turns filling that role. (Gaulden left practice early Monday, presumably with an injury; Rivera said he didn’t know what the issue was).
▪ Running back behind Christian McCaffrey. Rookies Jordan Scarlett and Elijah Holyfield figure to get a lot of carries Thursday, Rivera indicated.
▪ The mix at free safety between Tre Boston and Cockrell.
▪ Depth at wide receiver behind starters DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel; not just who makes the team, but the pecking order among five or six total receivers. Special-teams contributions will definitely play a role on this unit in who makes the final cuts.
Dennis Daley, a rookie out of South Carolina, is listed on the Panthers’ depth chart at right guard, but that’s deceiving. Daley has been moved all around the offensive line this preseason in an attempt to make him the offensive line’s utility player.
“You have to have position flexibility; when they come in as primary backups, they have to play more than one spot,” Rivera said. “Dennis has handled it very well.”
Rivera said Daley’s versatility, combined with drafting tackle Greg Little in the second round (he’s currently backing up Daryl Williams), give the Panthers better depth than they’ve had in the past. The team also signed veteran Matt Paradis, who combined with Tyler Larsen solidifies center following Ryan Kalil’s departure.
Kalil intended to retire, but then signed with the New York Jets.