1) KB or not KB: Certainly not listed in order of importance to Thursday’s proceedings but rightly at the top of the list when it comes to initial intrigue, it will be interesting to see how Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin interacts with his former teammates – and vice versa – in the pregame period on the field.
Benjamin, a former first-round pick by the Panthers who was traded midway through last season, shared some not-so flattering thoughts about quarterback Cam Newton over the weekend. Former teammate Greg Olsen said that everyone was caught off-guard and a little confused by Benjamin’s comments, but the Panthers have taken the high road so far in a situation that calls for sensitivity.
2) QB or not QB: Once the game gets underway, Newton and Benjamin aren’t likely to see a whole lot of snaps. Those that follow Newton under center have a lot on the line beginning tonight.
“If we can get Cam and have really nice series of nine or ten reps, I’ll take him out and put Garrett (Gilbert) in,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “We’ll get Garrett in and hopefully with some of the starters in there so he can mix with those guys, and it will also give us a chance to get to Taylor (Heinicke) sooner.”
Gilbert and Heinicke are battling to replace Derek Anderson – Newton’s backup since 2011 – in that role. Both have earned Rivera’s praise throughout the offseason and are on close to equal footing, but the competition begins in earnest against the Bills.
“We have to find an opportunity to put those guys in some tough positions to see how they handle the pressure and the stress,” Rivera said. “That’s what we’ll base it off of.”
3) Line items: The preseason focus along the offensive line was expected to be on figuring out the plan at left guard following the free agency departure of Andrew Norwell, but that not-so-simple task has been complicated. Veteran Amini Silatolu had been the leader in the clubhouse but will undergo surgery to repair a torn meniscus Friday.
Taylor Moton was expected to provide considerable competition at the spot, but he has moved over to the starting right tackle role in place of injured All-Pro Daryl Williams. Both Silatolu and Williams are out indefinitely, and while their seasons aren’t over, the Panthers have to plan without them for now. First up at left guard is undrafted rookie Brendan Mahon (pronounced "Man"), who has consistently impressed coaches but now must impress under game conditions as he continues down the road to earning trust.
4) Rookie receivers: Much of their work might come with backup quarterbacks working behind a patchwork offensive line, but it’s always a worthwhile watch when rookie skill players debut. First-round receiver DJ Moore has enjoyed a promising offseason so far. Known for his ability to make people miss after making the catch, this will be his first chance to show off that skill with defenders truly trying to tackle him. Rookie tight end Ian Thomas has flourished as a pass catcher during camp, but his learning curve also includes blocking responsibilities and an understanding of the intricacies of a demanding position.
5) Time to tackle: Six drafted rookie defenders are set to make their debut. How will second-day draft picks Donte Jackson and Rashaan Gaulden look in the secondary - in pass coverage of course but also as tacklers in a scheme that values that skill? Speaking of tackling, rookie linebackers Jermaine Carter and Andre Smith were tackling machines in college, but will that translate to the pros and will they be up to snuff on special teams?
Rookie defensive end Marquis Haynes has been a handful for teammates with his speed around the edge in practice, but this is his first chance to put that skill into practice against guys trying to make a mark with their team. Rookie defensive tackle Kendrick Norton has had his moments but needs more of the same during the preseason if he hopes to stick around at a stacked position group.
For all the rookies, here’s what Rivera will be watching for.
“Consistency – that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “We can’t see big mistakes, and we can’t see a lot of little mistakes. We’ve got to see limited mistakes. We’ve got to see good work. I told all the young guys, ‘If I were you, I’d get in the (play)book, and if I had a question I’d ask. Take responsibility. This is your opportunity.’ ”