CHARLOTTE – Between training camp in Spartanburg and back-to-back preseason games at Washington and New England, the Panthers spent nearly a month on the road. This week, they get a chance to close out the preseason in familiar territory.
Carolina will face Buffalo in its preseason finale at Bank of America Stadium on Friday in a 7 p.m. kickoff.
Head coach Matt Rhule said to expect to see the Panthers' starters for at least a full quarter against the Bills. And with the cutdown to 53 looming next Tuesday, the last preseason game offers one more chance to flash before the roster is trimmed ahead of the regular season.
Here's a look at five things we'll be watching when Buffalo visits the Panthers.
BAKER MAYFIELD TAKES THE REINS
Carolina concluded its quarterback competition this week, and Baker Mayfield will take the field as the Panthers' definite first-team quarterback for the first time since the No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft was traded from the Browns just weeks before training camp.
He'll have an opportunity to show how quickly he picked up on offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's offense when he gets at least a full quarter of live game action, and all eyes will be locked on the chemistry Mayfield is building with his receivers and starting center Pat Elflein.
Since he was named QB1 over last year's starter Sam Darnold, Mayfield has connected on multiple passes in practice with DJ Moore, one of his most consistent targets in Carolina. He also has former Browns teammate Rashard Higgins and early chemistry with Shi Smith.
Mayfield is still building a rapport with Elflein, and he took ownership of a couple of fumbled snaps early in practice on Monday.
Overall, Mayfield's early command of the Panthers' offense has drawn praise from coaches and teammates alike. But the game against Buffalo will be his last chance to take snaps against another team before he faces the group he used to lead, as Cleveland comes to town in Week 1.
IKEM EKWONU'S DEVELOPMENT
Carolina selected the NC State product with its first-round pick this year for a reason, and Ekwonu will have more time to make up for a couple of sacks he'd like to get back from New England.
He's still building chemistry on the left side of the line beside Brady Christensen, who took reps at left tackle before sliding over to guard in the Panthers' starting lineup. Ekwonu said he's learning from Christensen, who has a year of league experience, and the two will look to solidify that side against Buffalo.
Ekwonu will also get to roll out for at least a quarter with the rest of the starting line against the Bills. It'll be different from the Patriots' game, as Elflein, right guard Austin Corbett, and right tackle Taylor Moton were all inactive while Carolina elected to rest most of its starters at New England.
SHI SMITH'S LARGER ROLE
Smith's performance throughout camp has caught the attention of coaches and teammates, and Rhule said Tuesday that the second-year wideout could be competing for a starting role in this year’s offense.
The South Carolina product has been showing up from the slot and in kick returns. Rhule said Smith has been getting more opportunities on punt returns too, and live-game action is one of the best times for coaches to evaluate Smith's development in that phase.
He returned one punt for 15 yards against New England and another for 7 yards at Washington, and he set up a game-winning drive with a 41-yard kick return against the Commanders.
For Smith, who also has been showing early chemistry with Mayfield, the Bills' game is another chance to prove his worth across multiple situations.
WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH
Opportunities could be easier to come by for many of the Panthers' receivers against Buffalo, while a host of wideouts continued to nurse injuries throughout the week before the last preseason game.
Robbie Anderson, Andre Roberts, and Brandon Zylstra were all out tending to various injuries in the first two practices last week. Terrace Marshall Jr. has yet to play in a preseason game and is making a slow return from a hamstring injury suffered in camp.
C.J. Saunders was added to the mix again this week after returning from a quad strain sustained in Spartanburg that could've sidelined him through the preseason. He practiced with a limited number of reps Monday and Tuesday.
Keith Kirkwood played the most snaps of any receiver against New England, and Higgins had the second-most in the last preseason game. Undrafted free agents Derek Wright, Ra'Shaun Henry, and Charleston Rambo will also look to make the most of opportunities before the roster is trimmed next week.
A LOOK AT THE CORNERS
Second-year cornerback Jaycee Horn has seen his number of practice snaps continue to rise after he reported to training camp with soreness in the foot he had repaired after his season-ending injury early last year – and he's proceeded to show why he was drafted in the first round of last year's draft.
Horn picked off Mayfield in Monday's practice before it was called back due to a penalty, and he's been a lock for at least one interception in each week of practice that he's consistently participated in since he's built up more playing time.
He didn't play in either of the Panthers' first two preseason games, but with Rhule announcing he'll go with starters for at least a quarter of the Bills' matchup, Friday may be the Panthers' first opportunity to see him back on the field before Week 1.
Even if Horn doesn't take the field, Carolina has plenty to assess from that group before the 53-man roster is solidified.
Rhule has been impressed with Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, who also makes an impact on the special teams unit and wrapped up New England's Myles Bryant on a punt return in last week's preseason matchup.
Former USFL champion Tae Hayes also impressed against the Patriots, bringing an interception back for a touchdown, and he has plenty of support from his teammates. Rookie Kalon Barnes will also be looking to make a splash after he was drafted in the seventh round this year.