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Five things to watch against Ravens: What will the starters actually do?

Deonte Brown

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers got a good two days of work with the Ravens this week, and played well enough in those controlled joint practices to lessen the impact of the game itself.

But game reps are still evaluated, as there's something a little different when the lights are on, and there's an actual risk of getting hit.

Panthers head coach Matt Rhule hedged this week when he was asked about playing time for starters, saying he'd play "some starters" for "a small amount" of tonight's game.

The defensive starters in particular had a good couple of practices against the Ravens, and there's a little less of a need on that side of the ball, if only because there are fewer unanswered questions there.

(It's also worth noting that the Ravens' first offensive was missing both starting tackles and five of their six top receivers Thursday, so snaps against their twos could actually be misleading.)

Here's a look at what we will be watching though:

1. How much will Sam Darnold play?

Rhule clearly wants Darnold and the starting offense to get extensive work next week against the Steelers, a flip of the way preseason used to be structured, when starters barely played in the finale.

But with left tackle Cameron Erving and wide receiver DJ Moore not finishing Thursday's practice, and wideout Robby Anderson not participating at all with a hamstring, it's reasonable to wonder if it's worth it to put Darnold out there for long.

He's had a solid-if-not-spectacular training camp, and saw enough different looks against the Colts and Ravens to justify limiting his work a little if he's not properly accompanied.

Will Grier

2. And will Will Grier get more of a chance?

The backup quarterbacks took center stage last week, with P.J. Walker and Grier each playing a half.

But Walker threw 21 passes and Grier only 10, so it wasn't an equitable chance.

Walker appears to be securely ahead of Grier in the pecking order despite the "or" between their named on the depth chart. But Rhule said this week he wanted to give Grier more a chance to air it out, so perhaps if he plays well, he could narrow the gap.

3. Is someone going to steal a guard job?

The Panthers have a couple of solid veterans in Pat Elflein and John Miller taking most of the work with the ones.

But Dennis Daley and Deonte Brown are doing enough to make it interesting, now and in the future.

Daley's caught their eye, and the only real question is availability.

Brown put in a very good shift last week at right guard, and the massive rookie is the kind of player who looks much better in pads than running around in shorts.

If nothing else, Brown's work so far is a good sign for the future, as they needed to add young talent to the pipeline, and Brown and Brady Christensen look like guys who will play a substantial role for them in the years to come.

Spencer Brown

4. Which backup running back will step up?

Chuba Hubbard stood out a week ago with his 59-yard run, but he had 21 yards on his other six carries. Get enough home runs and it doesn't matter, but they'd like to find a trustworthy couple of backups.

With Rodney Smithand Reggie Bonnafon sidelined by injuries, Spencer Brown has done some good things in camp.

Tonight's game will be a good indicator of whether he merits a longer look, if the more experienced guys don't play.

5. Is there a middle linebacker in the house?

Newcomer Josh Bynes and rookie Paddy Fisher each played 49 snaps last week (63 percent of the team total). Denzel Perryman's struggles to get on the field have opened the door for someone to provide depth inside.

This could still come from outside the current roster, but at the moment, the pickings are slim.

Clay Johnston and Julian Stanford returned to practice this week, so they're competing for a role as well, and it will be interesting to see if one of them rises above the rest.

View the best photos of Panthers 2021 training camp at Wofford from photographers Chanelle Smith-Walker and Angela Denogean.

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