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Five Things to Watch: Panthers at Jaguars

Posted Aug 24, 2017

Quarterback Cam Newton set to make his preseason debut; wide receiver Curtis Samuel set to make his pro debut.

1. Cam Newton's first action: For the first time since shoulder surgery, the quarterback participated in every drill with the first-team offense in practice this week, setting the stage for him to start when the Panthers visit the Jaguars on Thursday (7:30 p.m., Panthers TV).

Newton isn't expected to play the entire first half like most of the starters, but it's a big step forward in his preparations for Week 1 of the regular season.

"I am excited because (Thursday) will be an opportunity to see (Newton) out there with all the different players we brought in, all the different playmakers we believe we have," head coach Ron Rivera said.

2. The receiving core: Much like Newton, wide receiver Curtis Samuel was a full participant in practice this week for the first time since training camp opened July 26. The Panthers confirmed that their second-round draft pick will make his debut against the Jaguars and get a chance to showcase his skills coming off a hamstring injury. The Ohio State product studied the playbook in his time off and seamlessly slid back into the offense in practice, giving the indication that he won't need any additional time to integrate himself into the system.

Along with Samuel, key wide receivers Russell Shepard, Damiere Byrd and Brenton Bersin will get a chance to work with Newton in a live game setting for the first time this season - the first time ever in the case of Samuel and Shepard. As things now stand, those four are vying for playing time behind starters Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess and for spots on the 53-man roster.

3. Rivera's approach: The third game of the preseason is the so-called "dress rehearsal," the preseason game that most resembles what we'll see in the regular season. Will Rivera show his hand, or will the Panthers play it coy? While the majority of starters are expected to play into the second half, there are still questions as to how a few key pieces will be utilized. Christian McCaffrey's addition has given the backfield a spark, but up to this point he hasn't been seen on the field with starter Johnathan Stewart. Their running styles mesh well, yet coaches haven't given a concrete indication as to how they'll be used in the regular season. The meeting with Jacksonville may provide additional insight.

4. Limiting turnovers, big plays: It's no secret that the defense struggled in the second preseason game against the Titans, allowing 34 points. Rivera didn't have all the answers postgame, but he did point to the team's poor field position and big-play liability.

Carolina turned the ball over three times inside its own 20, each of which resulted in a Titans' touchdown. In addition, the defense allowed eight plays that covered 17 or more yards. That's not exactly a recipe for success. Against Jacksonville, the offensive starters must take care of the ball, or the defense could find itself on the field for the majority of the game again.

5. Punting competition: There's less chatter surrounding the competition for punter, yet it's one of the tighter position battles this preseason. In one corner, there's Andy Lee: a veteran, three-time Pro Bowl punter who booted a franchise record punt of 76 yards last season in his first game in blue. In the other corner, there's Michael Palardy: an undrafted lefty who has spent time with seven teams since his rookie year in 2014. Palardy punted well over the final seven games last season in Lee's place but has yet to persuade the coaching staff that he's the guy this season. All the while, Lee focuses on replicating the performances that prompted the Panthers to trade for him around this time last year.

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