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5 Things to Watch: Panthers vs. Raiders

Derrick Brown

The Panthers on Sunday will play their first game under head coach Matt Rhule. Here are five things to watch for in the Week 1 matchup against the Raiders.

Have the Panthers improved against the run?

Carolina struggled mightily against the run in 2019, surrendering a league-worst 5.2 yards per carry. There's reason to feel better about the club's chances in 2020 since veteran defensive tackle Kawann Short is back from a shoulder injury that cost him all but two games last year. Plus, the Panthers drafted defensive tackle Derrick Brown at No. 7 overall this spring.

But on the other side, the Raiders have 2019 first-round pick Josh Jacobs, who set a franchise rookie rushing record last year. Jacobs played most of the season with a nagging shoulder injury that eventually kept him sidelined for three of the final four games. Jacobs was still able to finish eighth in the league with 1,150 yards rushing and his 88.3 yards per game was third best.

If the Panthers are going to win, they'll need to slow down Jacobs. It won't be an easy task, but he's the engine that powers the rest of Las Vegas' offense. If Jacobs consistently rips off 5-yard runs, it'll be a long day for the Panthers' defense.

Offensive huddle

What does Joe Brady's offense look like?

There's understandable excitement around what offensive coordinator Joe Brady can bring to Carolina. After all, he helped construct the most prolific offense in college football history last year at LSU.

Still, patience is warranted. Brady's never had this particular group of players to coach before, and they've never faced an opponent together.

It's fair to expect Carolina will continue to utilize running back Christian McCaffrey like the offensive superstar he's proven to be. Brady said he feels McCaffrey's touches are in line with the type of game-changing player he is. Plus, the Panthers have a lot of speed on the outside with wide receivers Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel, and DJ Moore. And then Carolina has its tight ends, where both Chris Manhertz and Ian Thomas have a lot to prove in 2019.

There's plenty of mystery surrounding the offense, but the most significant thing they need to do is score points.

Jeremy Chinn

How will the rookies fare?

The Panthers' top four draft picks were listed as starters on the first depth chart of the season: Brown, defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, safety Jeremy Chinn, and cornerback Troy Pride Jr.

Each will have his own set of challenges in Week 1.

Brown and Gross-Matos will face some of the best offensive linemen in the league. Las Vegas center Rodney Hudson is a three-time Pro Bowler and was a second-team All-Pro last year. Right tackle Trent Brown became the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league when he signed with the Raiders last year.

Chinn will likely match up with tight end Darren Waller at some point. During his 2019 breakout season, Waller was second among tight ends with 1,145 yards receiving. His size and speed make him a threat at any point on the field.

Pride's challenge is slightly different, as the Raiders are expected to start a pair of rookies at wide receiver: first-round pick Henry Ruggs III and third-rounder Bryan Edwards. Veteran quarterback Derek Carr will surely test Pride early no matter which wide receiver he's covering.

The Panthers are relying on a lot of young players on defense, all of whom must grow up quickly.

Damon Arnette

Testing their young corners

Like the Panthers, the Raiders also have a rookie corner starting in Damon Arnette. The Ohio State product was a first-round pick in the spring, and Las Vegas has been high on his potential. While the club signed 10-year veteran Prince Amukamara in May as insurance, Arnette made enough progress in training camp for the Raiders to start him.

Las Vegas' cornerbacks are both young, as the starter opposite Arnette, Trayvon Mullen, is entering just his second season. Mullen started 10 games for the Raiders last year, recording an interception and 10 passes defensed.

Everyone knows McCaffrey is going to get his share of touches. But there could be some opportunities for Moore, Anderson, and Samuel to take advantage of the young secondary's mistakes, particularly with a savvy quarterback like Bridgewater.

Pharoh Cooper

Can the Panthers get an edge in returns?

Pharoh Cooper was one of the best returners in the league in 2017, becoming an All-Pro and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. He hasn't reached the level of success in the two seasons since, spending time with the Rams, Bengals, and Cardinals over that span. But if Cooper can return to his 2017 form, that could be a significant boost.

Cooper has said he'd like to contribute on offense, too. That may be in the cards for him, as Brady told the media this week that if players are active, they'll likely be a part of the offensive rotation. But Cooper's primary duty will be to set the offense up with good field position, and he's capable of doing so at a high level.

View photos of the helmet stickers that a number of Panthers players will wear on Sunday that honor victims of racial injustice and call for messages of change.

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