Linebacker Luke Kuechly takes a business-like approach to practice day after day, but even he is ready for a change from business as usual.
Kuechly and the Panthers will get their first chance Friday night to apply what they've learned through long days of practice when they open the preseason against the Buffalo Bills at Bank of America Stadium (7:30 p.m. on the Panthers Television Network and Time Warner Cable SportsChannel).
"It will be fun," Kuechly said. "You get tired of playing against the same guys, get tired of seeing DeAngelo (Williams) or Mike (Tolbert) in the hole. It will be good to get somebody new in there.
"We're all looking forward to it. The best part is that we'll be in Charlotte in front of the crowd. It will be a lot of fun."
Even with Kuechly and the team's other stars unlikely to see extended action in the first of four preseason games, the Panthers do want to start establishing a winning culture just like last year, when they followed up a 3-1 preseason by going 12-4 in the regular season to capture the NFC South championship.
But most of all, the preseason opener will allow the coaching staff to take their personnel evaluations to the next level, always a vital storyline in August as the roster is whittled from 90 players to 53 over the next month.
"There is a pecking order and you do see some separation," head coach Ron Rivera said. "But you never really know until you get the guys out on the field in live action."
WIDE EYES: Though Rivera could have been referring to just about any position group, he was actually talking about the wide receivers, a position seemingly always filled with intrigue this time of the year.
"To say 'these are our top six guys' when the action hasn't been at game speed would be unfair," Rivera said. "We have an idea, but it's not in granite. Nothing is in stone. Nothing is for sure."
First-round draft choice Kelvin Benjamin will make his debut and is sure to remain one of those top six throughout camp, and the popular school of thought says that veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are likely to be keepers as well. But there are no guarantees, especially when it comes to the other eight receivers on the roster.
Rivera and his fellow coaches will look for separation in part by seeing how the receiving candidates create separation against someone else's defense.
"The biggest thing is catching the ball in traffic and being able to get off the press (coverage)," Rivera said. "This will be game speed against a different group of guys that you don't know as well as your own guys. It will be interesting to see how they handle this opportunity."
The opportunity to catch passes in a game from quarterback Cam Newton may have to wait. Rivera said Newton would be "very limited" against the Bills if he plays at all coming off offseason ankle surgery.
DIRTY EYES: Rivera has used the term "dirty eyes" a couple of times at training camp, referring to defensive backs reacting to action in the offensive backfield that suggests a running play, only to find themselves out of position for the pass that follows.
That's just one discipline among many that will be tested by another team Friday as the Panthers delve deeper into figuring out the crowded depth chart in their secondary. Rookie Bene Benwikere (cornerback), offseason additions Antoine Cason (cornerback), Thomas DeCoud (safety) and Roman Harper (safety) and returners Melvin White (cornerback), Robert Lester (safety) and Colin Jones (safety) are leading candidates on paper for roster spots. Veteran Charles Godfrey is right there as well - assuming he shows in game action that he can transition from safety to corner. Also right there are the Joshes – cornerbacks Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. That doesn't even include rookie Tre Boston, a fifth-round draft choice along with Benwikere currently dealing with a groin injury.
The thing is, that's 11 guys of the 15 defensive backs currently on the roster, and 10 is typically the maximum a team can afford to carry. There are always surprises on both sides of the ledger – those who think they're safe and those who seemingly face an uphill battle. That's why preseason performance is so crucial, and Bills receivers Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams and Robert Woods will present a challenge that could lead to shifts in the secondary's pecking order.
EYES AND EARS: Fans could use some extra sets to sort through all of the in-game developments, and they'll have just that in the form of the Panthers' newly constructed preseason broadcast crews.
Radio voice Mick Mixon will slide over to television for play-by-play duties during the preseason. He will team with color analyst and former Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker, returning for his fourth preseason in the booth. They will be joined by sideline reporter Kelli Bartik of WCCB-TV in her first year with the preseason television broadcast team.
Moving over from his commentator position to provide radio play-by-play for the preseason is Jim Szoke, while Eugene Robinson will once again handle the analysis for the 52-station Panthers Radio Network. Making his sideline reporting debut will be former Panthers Pro Bowl tackle Jordan Gross, who retired in February after an 11-year career.
BAG POLICY: The National Football League bag policy designed to enhance safety will be strictly enforced. Under the policy, approved bags must meet the following criteria:
• Small clutch purse no larger than 4.5" x 6.5"
• Any transparent plastic or vinyl bag no larger than 12" x 6" x 12"
• Seat pad that does not contain zippers, clasps, etc., and is not encased in vinyl.
The North and East gates of Bank of America Stadium have recently been renovated to provide improved access with additional screening points of entry. For the most efficient, effective and quickest entry into the stadium, officials recommend the following:
• Arrive at the stadium gates 30 minutes earlier than you have in the past.
• Refrain from bringing items that require a bag check.
|Panthers in the Park||Located at Romare Bearden Park in Third Ward between Church Street and Mint Street and open from 5 to 7 p.m. Free, interactive area offers fun for the entire family with appearances by the TopCats, Sir Purr and PurrCussion and the Fuel Up to Play 60 Kids Combine, which includes activities like the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, wide receiver/quarterback challenge, TopCats dance studio and inflatable obstacle course.|
|Panthers Lair||Located on the corner of Mint Street and Morehead Street and open from 5:15 to 7:15 p.m., with TopCats signing autographs and posing for photos at the 107.9 The Link booth from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., Sir Purr appearing throughout the day and a performance by PurrCussion. Learn about protecting your home from CPI Security. Be one of 150 guests invited to the Anheuser-Busch mobile unit for an ice cold beverage. Check out the pizza promotions at the Papa Johns tent. Stop by the Belly Backers food truck for a quick and delicious meal on the go or get an ice cold treat from the Snow Cup Diva Chicks. Area also features a DJ and offers food and drink sales.|
|Pregame||Performance: 20 Ride|
|Invocation||Rev. Jim Bernacki - Christ Episcopal Church, Albemarle, N.C.|
|Hickory (N.C.) High School JROTC|
|National Anthem||Leslie Netta|
|Halftime||Tic and Tac performance as well as Sam Mills Memorial Scholarship and Carolina Panthers Graduate Scholarship presentations|