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5 Things to Watch: Young defenders ready for action

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CHARLOTTE — For both the Panthers and the Jets, it's been an offseason of change.

While that was highlighted by the trade that brought quarterback Sam Darnold from New York, it extended through a number of moves for both sides.

The Jets changed coaches, hiring former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and used their first-round pick on their latest new quarterback.

The Panthers were a little more stable, but still hired a new general manager in Scott Fitterer, who presided over an active season of free agency and trades, and a record number of draft picks.

But now, it's time to see what all those moves mean. Here are five things to watch in Sunday's Panthers-Jets opener.

TIME FOR HORN TO SHINE

Normally when you have a star rookie you're counting on heavily, his first game is kind of a big deal.

But with Jaycee Horn, the week hasn't seemed like a debut, perhaps because he has the air of a much older player.

The Panthers' first-round pick has taken a low-key approach to his first NFL appearance, saying it's not a cause for celebration for him. Having been around the league his whole life (he's the son of former wide receiver Joe Horn), he's been living it long before he started playing.

"It's all the same to me; I really feel the same," Horn said earlier this week. "As we get closer to game day, I'm sure I'll start having different feelings and different emotions, but right now, I'm just trying to focus on the Jets, their offensive schemes, and all that, and just play ball on Sunday."

The Panthers are counting on Horn being transformative for their defense, as many of last year's problems (they were next to last in the league in defensive third-down percentage) were directly attributable to their lack of cover players.

So when Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow was researching him entering the draft, he realized what a difference-maker Horn could be.

"I talked to him on the phone extensively before the draft, and I said guys, if we're going to take a guy on defense, this is the guy we need," Snow said. "He's just mature, he's been brought up in football, it makes sense to him, he's tough, and he's really big for a corner. Have you stood next to him? He's really a big corner, and those guys don't come around really often.

"So I was really excited when we got him. It changes the dynamics of who we are and what we can do."

WELCOME, ROOKIE

The Panthers want to be multiple on defense anyway, and pride themselves on having "positionless" players such as Jeremy Chinn, Haason Reddick, and Brian Burns.

That gives them the chance to show Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson a variety of looks on defense, in hopes of confusing him in his first NFL start.

"He's a rookie quarterback, but he's a really talented rookie," Snow said. "We're not underestimating anything that he can and can't do.

"It's just hard for a rookie. They're seeing a lot of looks that they don't normally see in college."

Wilson didn't see a lot of looks in the preseason, throwing just 20 passes. Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson estimates they watched each of them about 20 times, seeing the "swagger" the Jets obviously liked when they made him the second overall pick.

Burns also suggested that giving Wilson things he wasn't familiar with would be part of the plan.

"That first year in the league is usually when they try to test the waters, figure things out," Burns said. "So he might be a little unsure coming into the game.

"I'm not going to speak too much on it. I'm not gonna rah-rah. But yeah, it's exciting."

WHY BOTHER

Speaking of Wilson, the Panthers did plenty of film study of the former BYU quarterback leading up to the draft, but didn't send the full contingent to his pro day workout.

While Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and Fitterer made a point to be at other quarterback workouts (toasting with pickled eggs at Trey Lance's in Fargo), the coach skipped the trip to Utah since it was clear by that point the Jets had zoomed in on Wilson with the second pick.

"I think at that point we kind of knew he's probably going to be the second pick," Rhule said. "But we studied him a lot. Obviously, elite arm talent. You loved his demeanor and personality. He made all the throws. Can move around in the pocket. Really, really smart. . . . He's got all the tools to be a great quarterback."

STRUGGLING TO TAKE OFF

The Panthers have been lucky — and Rhule knocked on wood, he knows it — to have enjoyed good health this preseason. Their injury report this week consisted of just one player (rookie wideout Shi Smith, out with a shoulder injury), along with starting right guard John Miller being out on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Along with two players who may not have made the roster anyway on IR, it could definitely be a lot worse.

The Jets have not been as fortunate.

They've already lost top pass-rusher Carl Lawson (who signed a three-year, $45 million contract this offseason) for the year with a torn Achilles, and veteran linebacker Jarrad Davis will miss a couple of months with an ankle injury.

They're also without leading receiver Jamison Crowder this week, as he remains on reserve/COVID-19, taking away a trustworthy target for Wilson.

YOUNG LEADERS

The Panthers remain one of the youngest teams in the league, but because so many players like Burns and Chinn and Derrick Brown played so many snaps last year, they're experienced.

That also comes with a burden of expectation.

"I don't look at any of the young guys anymore as young," Snow said. "To me, Chinn and Brown and Burns and those guys, they're veterans now. So I expect them to play well.

"We have to take off, and I'm expecting us to play well on defense. We have the pieces to play well, and that's our job. We've got some good players on defense; we've got to play that way."

BONUS GAME DAY RECIPE

Remember that Harris Teeter has all of your Tailgate or Home-gating needs! Enjoy this recipe from Harris Teeter & Nabisco – Rocky Road Oreo Brownies!

View the best training camp photos of the 2021 captains: Christian McCaffrey, Shaq Thompson, Donte Jackson, Sam Darnold, Matt Paradis, Brian Burns, Taylor Moton and J.J. Jansen.

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