1. ROOKIE CORNERS GRADUATE TO GAME ACTION: The Panthers have been happy with what they've seen from their rookie cornerbacks so far in practice. Now it's time to take it to the next level, with rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley slated to start on the outside and rookie Zack Sanchez at nickel in the preseason opener at Baltimore (7:30 p.m., Panthers TV/Time Warner).
"I'm excited to watch our players. Obviously there are some guys specifically that I'm excited to watch play, especially those young corners," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I want to see them get out there and get their feet wet in an NFL game, and then we'll go from there."
Rivera was disappointed the last couple of practices leading up to the game with the rookies not knowing their assignments or executing them with consistency. The rookies should get a better understanding of what it's going to take from this experience.
"For myself, I just want to make sure I complete all my assignments, that I do all the things the coaches want me to do," Bradberry said. "And come out with no injuries."
2. BIG VERN TAKES BIG STEP: The bumps in the learning curve aren't reserved for defensive backs. Rookie defensive tackle Vernon Butler, the Panthers' first-round draft choice, must tackle his own set of challenges beginning with this game.
"He's still a work in progress, still has a long ways to go. But that's true for any young guy," Rivera said. "He'll improve as time goes on, and I'm excited about seeing him play Thursday night."
Butler possesses some traits that can't be learned, and it should be fun to see them on display for the first time.
"He a good-sized athlete with tremendous quickness to go with it," Rivera said. "That's his biggest asset."
3. RUNNING BACKS READY TO BATTLE: Rivera was asked if he was looking forward to seeing the competition for the second-team running back gig behind Jonathan Stewart begin to play out.
"Truthfully, our second running back really is a combination of Michael Tolbert and Fozzy Whittaker. The guys that we have to find out about are Cameron Artis-Payne and Brandon Wegher," Rivera said. "Those two young guys did a nice job during Fan Fest. I'm excited to see them play."
Tolbert, the Panthers' starting fullback, and Whittaker, a change-of-pace back, appear entrenched. Rivera has indicated that Artis-Payne and/or Wegher could be in line for more carries in their second NFL seasons. Wegher was a preseason star last year that earned his way onto the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie, but Artis-Payne ran ahead of him. Both have significant talent, so something like pass blocking could help determine the eventual pecking order.
4. ONE-SIDED PUNTING COMPETITION? Veteran punter Mike Scifres didn't kick much the last few days of camp leading up to the first game, and that could continue into the first game. Scifres, coming off offseason surgery, could watch relative NFL newcomer Swayze Waters handle all the punts in the first chapter of their battle for the starting job.
"If he's fine, he'll kick. If he's not, he won't kick, and we'll wait until next week," Rivera said. "It could be a game where we use one punter the whole time, and then use the other punter the next week."
If it works out that way, this is a major opportunity for Waters to get a leg up in a battle that's expected to only heat up as the preseason moves forward.
5. A SPLASH OF SMITTY? Former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith planned to retire last season before an Achilles injury cut short what had been a strong year for him. The Ravens will no doubt be careful with him throughout the preseason, though head coach John Harbaugh indicated earlier this week that he expected Smith to be available for the Panthers game. One way or the other, the two sides will no doubt renew acquaintances – even if it's just on the field before kickoff.
LAST TIME THEY PLAYED