LANDOVER, Md. — It's finally time for football. Against people who wear different uniforms.
Saturday afternoon, the Panthers open the preseason at FedEx Field against the Washington Commanders (still getting used to that, the Football Team had grown on us) in a 1 p.m. start.
As is typical with a first game of the season, there are plenty of unknowns, not that we're going to know all the things after this one. But it's a start, the first of three preseason games this year (which has completely grown on us).
So here's a look at five things we'll be watching Saturday afternoon:
THE QUARTERBACKS, OF COURSE
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule didn't declare which quarterback would start but that both Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold would play a series or so. The goal is to get them eight to 10 snaps, so if that's one series, that would be preferable (a three-and-out probably buys you another one).
Mayfield has been growing steadily in practices as he tries to unseat Darnold for the starting job. If anything, the generalities we believed about them going into camp are being reinforced. Mayfield's not afraid to take chances (which means you'll need to live with a few interceptions in your life). Darnold's a little more careful and has more background, but the head start advantage evaporates with every passing game. Between this game and the joint practices with the Patriots next week, we might be getting closer to a decision.
But results matter, so what they do against another team will carry some weight.
AND THEIR PROTECTION
As we mentioned coming out of camp, the single biggest difference in the Panthers' on-field product this year is the quality of the offensive linemen they brought to camp.
They signed two free agents and drafted two rookies, and at the moment, it appears all four will make the roster. Considering teams generally keep nine offensive linemen, that's a significant turnover (and they needed it after starting 14 different lineups in 17 games last year).
It's first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu's first professional game, and our first chance to check out his progress as he works toward taking ownership of the left tackle job.
Keep an eye on the centers, as Pat Elflein has continued to work ahead of Bradley Bozeman. Elflein is more athletic and is much more naturally suited to play center than guard. Bozeman's a bigger and stronger player, though not quite as mobile. Elflein suffers in popular perception based on the association with last year's line, but he's a capable starter at center. Bozeman's also one of those (starting the previous three seasons for the Ravens), and he will have to take the job from Elflein — but he might.
The Panthers could still use a little more certainty about their defensive line, and today could be a good indicator.
Without starting defensive tackle Derrick Brown (excused, personal reasons), and with Matt Ioannidis only getting a handful of snaps against his old team, we'll get a look at some of the reserves.
With guys including Daviyon Nixon and Phil Hoskins, the Panthers have some young players they're intrigued with, but no one has asserted themselves in camp to the point things are locked down in the middle. So they're very much fighting for jobs with teammates on hand and those who might join the team at some later date.
You'd also like to get a good look at how defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos sets the edge in the run game as a starter. They need him to take a step this year to help solidify the run defense, and against the vanilla offenses of the preseason, we'll likely get a glimpse of that.
EYE ON THE KICKING GAME
The kicker, punter, and long snapper positions are settled; we know that.
But special teams snaps will be key in the preseason as they try to sort out the jobs on kick and punt coverage and returns which are generally populated by backups.
There's a reason guys like Brandon Zylstra and Sean Chandler have hung around because they add value on special teams beyond what they do on offense or defense.
The preseason gives younger players a chance to put out good tape (for the Panthers or other teams), so those plays are auditions for them. There are some guys on the roster who could have key roles in that area that we haven't seen much of (such as defensive end Darryl Johnson), so those snaps will matter.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR PLAYMAKERS
Speaking of Smith, he has a chance to shine in the preseason, especially with offseason standout C.J. Saunders on the shelf for the next three or four weeks.
They're really looking for some of the second- and third-team wideouts to separate themselves, so the work by players such as Rashard Higgins, Smith, Zylstra, and Roberts will be closely watched.
They'd love to get more from the tight ends this year, but with starter Ian Thomas out with a rib injury, and an odd lot of players behind him (they were missing four last week and signed two new ones Thursday to get through some practices), that position has offered little clarity.
Carolina is 7-10 against Washington all-time in the regular season.