Carolina Panthers game predictions

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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ESPN.com Carolina Panthers reporter David Newton makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.

Week 1: at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Would you rather have Carolina's Cam Newton with a fractured rib playing quarterback or a healthy Josh McCown? Thought so. Then it comes down to defense, and Carolina gets the slight edge there. Prediction: Win


Week 2: Detroit Lions

The Panthers haven't won more than one of their first three games since 2008, also the last time they started 2-0. But this is the Lions, who have had only one winning season in the past 13 years and lost 26 straight road games from 2007 to 2010. Prediction: Win


Week 3: Pittsburgh Steelers

The Panthers are trying to build their own version of the infamous "Steel Curtain." Too much defense against a team with too many questions on offense. Prediction: Win


Week 4: at Baltimore Ravens

Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith has predicted a "blood and guts" performance against the team that released him in March. It might be, but the Ravens will win for reasons other than a certain 5-foot-9 35-year-old who will be out to prove Carolina made a mistake by letting him go. Prediction: Loss


Week 5: Chicago Bears

Carolina coach Ron Rivera is 0-2 against the team he helped -- OK, "helped" might be too strong -- win the Super Bowl as a backup linebacker during the 1985 season. At least this time he has a defense that will be closer to what the Bears had when he was a player. Prediction: Win


Week 6: at Cincinnati Bengals

This begins a pivotal five-week stretch against 2013 playoff teams in which the Panthers' 2014 playoff hopes will be either dashed or kept alive. It won't begin so well as the Bengals have too many weapons offensively. Prediction: Loss


Week 7: at Green Bay Packers

One of the best moments in Carolina history came on Dec. 12, 1999, when Steve Beuerlein converted an unlikely fourth-and-goal quarterback draw into a 5-yard touchdown on the final play for a 33-31 victory at Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers will produce the memorable moments in this one. Prediction: Loss


Week 8: Seattle Seahawks

The Panthers have been lucky to get the Seahawks at home for three straight years, even though they weren't so lucky in the outcome the first two times -- losing 16-12 and 12-7. This should be another defensive struggle with the odds that typically go to the home team finally swinging in Carolina's direction. Prediction: Win


Week 9: New Orleans Saints

The Saints may be great indoors, but they've proven to be average outdoors, as was the case last season when a monsoon bogged down their offense in a loss at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina will be fired up for a Thursday night national telecast. Prediction: Win


Week 10: at Philadelphia Eagles

The Panthers snookered Philadelphia into taking running back Kenjon Barner for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. The Eagles will get even with running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. Prediction: Loss


Week 11: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan probably counted Panthers instead of sheep during the offseason after being sacked nine times in the 2013 finale. Even with most of his weapons back, he'll still be under too much heat to find them consistently. Prediction: Win


Week 13: at Minnesota Vikings

Last season's 35-10 victory in Minneapolis was the turning point in Carolina's season, beginning an eight-game winning streak. Perhaps retired left tackle Jordan Gross will return to give another inspirational "Highlanders'' speech for this one. Prediction: Win


Week 14: at New Orleans Saints

The Panthers have one win in their past five games at the Superdome, which isn't bad considering how well the Saints play at home. Make that one win in their past six games in the Big Easy. Prediction: Loss


Week 15: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

McCown still is the quarterback. If he isn't, that tells you all you need to know about where the Bucs are heading this season. Prediction: Win


Week 16: Cleveland Browns

By now Johnny Football should be the starter because the Browns have given up on this season and are focused on 2015. If he comes out rubbing his fingers, he's counting the number of times the Carolina front seven will sack him. Prediction: Win


Week 17: at Atlanta Falcons

If everything happens as I have predicted above -- and that is sketchy given my track record -- the Panthers will rest their starters after the first half with a wild-card berth guaranteed and the NFC South title already owned by New Orleans. This will be Atlanta's Super Bowl. Prediction: Loss


Predicted Record: 10-6 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen loves football.

He loves his family more.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesThe Carolina Panthers organization has given Greg Olsen all the time he needs to attend to his son, T.J., who recently had open-heart surgery.
So when his football family said take unlimited time off two weeks before the season to be with his son, T.J., as he underwent open heart surgery for the third time since being born with a severe congenital heart defect in 2012, it was a relief.

"It's made life a lot easier, and it's not something I take for granted," Olsen said on Monday after returning to practice for the first time in seven days. "You would hope that it would be this way everywhere, but sometimes people aren't quite as understanding."

The Panthers have been. Team owner Jerry Richardson, who received a heart transplant in 2009, flew Olsen, his wife Kara, T.J., and other family members to Boston in 2012 to consult with doctors about an experimental surgery.

Richardson actually made the trip and spent time in hospital waiting rooms with Olsen.

"We talk about family and we want to follow up on that," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "Mr. Richardson has fostered a great environment here for us and we've taken the ball and run with it."

Rivera would like to believe all 32 NFL teams take the same approach. But when asked if other organizations he's been around have, he said, "Well, I just know this, I'm more involved in it a little bit more. That's all I'll say about that."

There are other examples where the Panthers put family first. Rivera made time before practice last Wednesday to play catcher for his daughter, a pitcher at UCLA, before she returned to college.

Quarterback Derek Anderson was given time off last week to be with his wife as she gave birth to the couple's first child even though it left third-stringer Joe Webb as the only healthy quarterback, as starter Cam Newton was out with fractured ribs and fourth-stringer Matt Blanchard was on injured reserve with a concussion.

"It all worked out," said Olsen, who happened to be at the same hospital as Anderson. "DA got to be there for his wife and [at Thursday's exhibition finale at Pittsburgh]. I didn't miss much. It all works out if you do things the right way."

Olsen would like to think the family appraoch has helped make the Carolina locker room and team stronger as it attempts to record consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.

"It's a special group," he said. "I've said that since I got here."

Olsen is happy to report T.J. is recovering well. But because his son remains in intensive care and is maybe weeks from being discharged, Olsen goes back and forth between the hospital and the stadium in his free time.

"He's a tough little guy," Olsen said. "He's really responded well to all three surgeries. We've had a few little hiccups, but for the most part he's on the right track."

And while there are no guarantees there won't be a transplant or other surgeries in T.J.'s future, Olsen has the support of the organization and is able to focus on football and Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay without added stress.

And the Panthers will need Olsen. He led the team in catches last season with 73. He is a big part of a two-tight end set Carolina plans to implement in an attempt to diversify the offense and take pressure off a new group of wide receivers.

Olsen vows he'll be ready.

"I haven't felt a ton of pressure to be two places at once, and I've been able to handle my family and that priority first," he said. "But also realize, this is a priority for me, too. It's important for me to be here.

"It won't be any challenge. I'll make sure I get what I have to get done. My wife is pretty understanding. She gets it."

So, apparently, do the Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ryan Kalil couldn't help but crack a joke when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton arrived for Monday's practice wearing a new oversized flak jacket.

"I told him in the event of a water landing it could be used as a flotation device," the Pro Bowl center and team's resident comedian said. "He didn't think that was funny, though."

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaCarolina QB Cam Newton has earned admiration from his teammates for his toughness.
All jokes aside, Newton showed no obvious limitations from the fractured ribs suffered in an August 22 exhibition at New England.

He threw, according to head coach Ron Rivera and teammates, well enough that there are few if any concerns for how effective he will be in Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay. He actually threw more than anybody expected.

There seemingly are few concerns about anything surrounding Newton these days as his teammates made him a team captain for the second straight year.

It made headlines a year ago when Newton was bestowed that honor for the first time in his three seasons. After consecutive losing seasons -- 6-10 and 7-9 -- there had been questions about his ability to lead.

Those ended after the first pick of the 2011 draft led Carolina to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title. Newton continued to show his leadership during the offseason the way he stayed around the team while recovering from surgery on his left ankle.

That he's playing through whatever soreness remains from the rib injury without complaint is no more surprising than him being named captain.

"Cam's a tough guy," said tight end Greg Olsen, named a captain along with Newton, Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. "He's a big, strong dude. If there's one thing the team knows, if there is any way for him to be out there and play at a high level he will.

"So there's not a lot of concern for that guy for the rest of the team. He'll be out there. He'll be fine."

Newton returned to practice Monday for the first time since New England linebacker Jamie Collins stepped on his back at the end of a 7-yard scramble. He reassured his teammates he was there for them, slapping the hands of every player in the huddle before taking his first snap.

"Cam, he's a fighter, he's a leader," left tackle Byron Bell said. "Ain't nothing going to hold that guy back. He looked good out there throwing the ball, calling the plays like he never lost a step. We've just got to keep him upright and we should be fine."

That will be key. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton has been sacked, hit while throwing or hit while carrying the ball 467 times during his first three seasons. That's more than double the total for any other quarterback, with Houston's Ryan Fitzpatrick next closest at 230.

That Newton takes those hits and doesn't complain, that he doesn't plan to change his style and slide instead of diving head first for every yard he can get, is another reason he's a captain.

"For me, a leader is somebody who leads by example," Kalil said. "Since the day he's gotten here he's done a good job in his preparation and how important it is. We give him a hard time about his pouting from time to time, but that's a reflection of how important it is to him.

"And even then he's the best self critic of himself. His self evaluation is one of the best I've been around.

"Obviously, the success came last year. But for me, he's been that guy since Day 1 and he's proven it in how he's played and how he's grown as a player and a leader."

He gets no argument from Rivera. Asked if his quarterback is more convincing as a leader now than a year ago, he deadpanned, "He's convincing, period."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers continue to explore options at wide receiver, working out Stephen Hill and Kadron Boone on Monday.

Coach Ron Rivera said neither were expected to be signed on Monday, but didn't rule out that happening in the future.

Hill, a second-round pick by the New York Jets in 2012, was released on Saturday. The former Georgia Tech star has 45 career catches for 594 yards and four touchdowns.

Boone was released by the Eagles after being signed as an undrafted rookie out of LSU.

The Panthers kept five receivers -- Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Brenton Bersin and Philly Brown -- on their 53-man roster after losing their top four from last season.

Brown made the roster as a receiver/kick returner, but his tendency to drop the ball has to be concerning despite the confidence the staff has shown in him.

Rivera said Carolina will continue to look at all positions where the team might get an upgrade.

"You gotta look at guys and see how they fit you and see if there is potential there," he said. "We have a ready list, guys we want to sign in case we get into an emergency situation."
TAMPA, Fla. – In last year’s meetings with the Carolina Panthers, there were times when Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was tripleteamed.

McCoy said Monday that he’d welcome a similar scenario when the Bucs host the Panthers in Sunday’s regular-season opener.

McCoy
McCoy
“I don’t care,’’ McCoy said. “It is what it is. Buffalo tried the same thing and you saw what happened. If they want to try it, they can go ahead. I’m not trying to play for myself. I play to get tripleteamed. I play so I make my teammates better. That’s one thing [Hall of Famer Warren Sapp] always talks about -- ‘Are you making the people around you better?’ That’s one thing he did. That’s one thing I’m working for. I want everybody around me to be great. It’s not about me. It’s about everybody around me.’’

The Bucs upgraded around McCoy in the offseason. They signed defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald as free agents. But McCoy sees another returning starter as being crucial to the defensive line.

“I think [defensive end] Adrian Clayborn is going to be the key for us up front,’’ McCoy said. “Everybody wants to say it’s Gerald, it’s about the under tackle. No. He has to make a transition from the right to the left and people are not expecting that to be a positive transition, going from his best side to a side he has to learn over a couple months. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. If he can get going, it’s going to change everything else.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was back throwing on Monday, his first participation in a full practice since suffering fractured ribs during an Aug. 22 exhibition game at New England.

Newton
Newton
Newton said last Wednesday he had no doubt he would start in Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay, and nothing he did early in practice would dispute that.

The first pick of the 2011 draft, who hasn't missed a start at Carolina, showed no limitation in his throwing motion. He ran between drills, something he didn't do all of last week, and had a full range of motion during stretching.

Newton was wearing a larger flak jacket than the one he was wearing when New England linebacker Jamie Collins stepped on the back of Carolina's franchise quarterback at the end of a 7-yard run to cause the fracture.

He did not appear hindered by that.

Also back at practice after sitting out the exhibition finale at Pittsburgh were defensive ends Charles Johnson (hamstring) and Greg Hardy, (shoulder) and right guard Trai Turner (groin).

Turner started the first two preseason games before suffering the injury. The team released Chris Scott, who started the last two preseason games, on Saturday.

Either Turner or Fernando Velasco, signed in July, is expected to start against Tampa.

Backup quarterback Derek Anderson, who suffered a bruised hand against the Steelers, showed no ill effects from the injury.
A closer look at the 53-man roster for the Carolina Panthers as they prepare for Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay:

Offense

Quarterbacks (3) -- Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb
  • Newton's offseason ankle surgery opened the door for Webb to join the team and Newton's fractured rib two weeks ago made it a necessity to keep Webb on the roster. Don't get me wrong, Webb played well enough in the preseason to earn a spot. But if Newton were perfectly healthy, the former UAB quarterback wouldn't be here.
Running backs (4) -- DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker
  • Whittaker is the biggest surprise in that he wasn't on the roster when training camp opened. But he led the team in rushing during the preseason and gives the team another punishing runner who sets the tone for this ball-control offense.
Wide Receivers (5) --Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Brenton Bersin, Philly Jones
  • There were major questions about who Newton would throw to after Steve Smith was released in March and Carolina's next three wide receivers signed with other teams. Benjamin, the team's first-round draft pick out of Florida State, answered many of those questions with a strong preseason. Bersin wasn't a player many expect to be here in March over Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt, but he's proven to be a solid route runner and receiver. Jones made the team primarily because of his kick-return skills. Don't be surprised to see Carolina add another player here.
Tight ends (4) -- Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Brandon Williams, Richie Brockel
  • The second-deepest position on the team behind the defensive line. The decision to reach an injury settlement with Mike McNeil had to be tough because he was signed to a two-year deal in free agency to be the blocking tight end. The emergence of Williams made him expendable.
Offensive linemen (10) -- Ryan Kalil, Byron Bell, Nate Chandler, Amini Silatolu, Trai Turner, Garry Williams, Fernando Velasco, Brian Folkerts, Andrew Norwell, David Foucault
  • The decision to cut guard Chris Scott, who had eight starts last season, was the most intriguing. But it says a lot about what the Panthers think of Norwell and the flexibility of Velasco, who can play center and guard. Keeping Foucault on the 53-man roster was probably more out of fear he wouldn't clear waivers so the team could put him on the practice squad.
Defense

Ends (5) -- Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, Kony Ealy, Wes Horton
  • Plenty of talent to go around here. That second-round draft pick Ealy is third on the depth chart says all you need to know. And when Frank Alexander returns from a four-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy, this position will get stronger.
Tackles (4) -- Star Lotulelei, Colin Cole, Kawann Short, Dwan Edwards
  • The same foursome that helped establish Carolina as the league's second-ranked defense a year ago. That ends Hardy and Ealy can move over and play tackle as well once again gives the Panthers one of the league's best rotations up front.
Linebackers (6) -- Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Chase Blackburn, A.J. Klein, Jason Williams, Ben Jacobs
  • No real surprises here. The decision to release D.J. Smith wasn't easy, but he was re-signed to the practice squad.
Cornerbacks (5) -- Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Charles Godfrey, Josh Norman, Bene' Benwikere
  • There simply wasn't room for Josh Thomas, who began last season as one of the top four corners. The starters are set with Cason and White, and Godfrey and Benwikere sharing the nickel spot that Captain Munnerlyn had last season.
Safeties (4) -- Roman Harper, Thomas DeCoud, Colin Jones, Tre Boston
  • The Panthers showed what they thought of Boston, their fourth-round pick, by leaving him on the roster ahead of Robert Lester, even though Boston missed most of the preseason recovering from sports hernia surgery. Fortunately, a new rule allowed Carolina to put Lester on the practice squad.
Specialists (3) -- Place-kicker Graham Gano, punter Brad Nortman, deep snapper J.J. Jansen
  • There never was a doubt these three would be here.
The Carolina Panthers didn't have to look far to fill out their practice squad.

All 10 players signed on Sunday were released by Carolina on Saturday after clearing waivers. They included safety Robert Lester and linebacker D.J. Smith, who were eligible under the new rules recently announced by the NFL and NFLPA.

The new rule allows teams to sign a maximum of two players who have earned no more than two accrued seasons of free-agency credit.

Under ideal circumstances, Carolina probably would have placed undrafted rookie offensive tackle David Foucault on the practice squad. But there were concerns another team might claim the Canadian player on waivers, so he was kept on the 53-man roster.

Here's a look at the entire squad: CB Carrington Byndom (R), LB Adarius Glanton (R), WR Tavarres King (2), S Robert Lester (2), WR Marcus Lucas (R), OT Andrew McDonald (1), RB Darrin Reaves (R), DT Micanor Regis (1), LB D.J. Smith (3), DT Casey Walker (1).
Starting quarterback Cam Newton is recovering from fractured ribs after recovering from offseason ankle surgery. Defensive end Charles Johnson played in only one preseason game because of a nagging hamstring injury and end Greg Hardy missed the last game with a shoulder contusion.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has a small cast on his right hand to protect a hyperextended thumb.

New strong safety Roman Harper missed the first three preseason games with turf toe and only was in for a few plays in the finale.

Not a pretty picture for the Carolina Panthers.

But coach Ron Rivera isn't concerned, insisting all of these key players will be ready for the opener at Tampa Bay a week from today.

"That's the nature of the game," Rivera said. "This could happen in the regular season and we'd have to adapt. It's basically the next man up."

Rivera seems confident, but are you?

Let's get to your questions and a few bold predictions for a Sunday mailbag:

@DNewtonESPN: The major concern begins and ends with the offensive line. This group was way too inconsistent during the preseason and remains an unknown heading into the opener against a very good Tampa Bay defense. The lack of a sustained drive -- without the help of penalties -- with all the starters in four preseason games is my biggest cause for concern. There's no question the athletic ability is there with left tackle Byron Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler, but they still have much to prove under fire.

@DNewtonESPN: Look, strong safety Quintin Mikell wasn't signed until the week before the 2013 season and Mike Mitchell didn't become a major contributor at free safety until Charles Godfrey suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 2. Experience-wise, this group starts with an edge. With the pressure the front seven puts on the quarterback, they don't have to be spectacular. They just have to play smart. Again, my biggest worry would be the offensive line.

@DNewtonESPN: Philly Brown definitely has a chance to make a big impact as the top returner and the fourth or fifth wide receiver, although his drops at both are a concern. There's not another undrafted rookie I would put in the impactful category. But running back Fozzy Whittaker and wide receiver Brenton Bersin both came into the league as undrafted players and both will play roles this season, particularly Bersin. The former Wofford star doesn't have blazing speed, but he has good hands and he legitimately earned a roster spot as arguably the fourth-best receiver.

@DNewtonESPN: He'll definitely be the No. 1 target, but you set the bar high. Jerry Rice, arguably the best receiver in NFL history, only had 49 catches for 927 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie. Randy Moss only had 69 catches as a rookie, albeit he had an amazing 17 touchdowns and 1,313 yards. Moss also had Cris Carter and Jake Reed to take the heat off him. Calvin Johnson only had 48 catches for 756 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie. I'd say the Panthers would be happy to get 50 to 60 catches for 8-10 touchdowns and close to 1,000 yards out of Benjamin.

@DNewtonESPN: Jonathan Stewart has only topped 18 catches once and he never had more than 47, that in 2011. So 50 is a tall order. But if he stays healthy, he will be a big part of the receiving game.

@DNewtonESPN: I hope you didn't bet the mortgage on that.

@DNewtonESPN: No indication of that. Rivera was emphatic that if Newton plays, he will run the entire offense, including the read option.  
Most significant move: This has to be the release of guard Chris Scott. He started eight games last season and started the last two preseason games at right guard with rookie Trai Turner nursing a groin injury. This sends a message that Turner is ready to start the opener at Tampa Bay. Conditioning has been an issue for Scott, but coach Ron Rivera told me on Wednesday that Scott had worked himself into a good position when I asked if he could win a starting job. The release shows how much the Panthers like guard Andrew Norwell and the confidence they have in Fernando Velasco to play center and guard.

Not King for this day: Wide receiver Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt were mentioned by general manager Dave Gettleman as young players they'd like to get a good look at when they released Steve Smith. McNutt didn't make the first cut and now King, who at one point appeared to be fourth or fifth on the depth chart, is gone.

No pick for Barner: The Philadelphia Eagles waived injured running back Kenjon Barner, meaning Carolina won't get the conditional seventh-round pick they negotiated in the trade. Barner had to make the team's 46-man active list for at least the first four games for the Panthers to get the pick.

Alexander on reserve/suspended: DE Frank Alexander, suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, was placed on the reserve/suspended list. He is expected to return to the 53-man roster (depth charts will be updated shortly) after the Week 4 game at Baltimore.

What's next: Look for Gettleman to keep a close eye on the waiver wire for a wide receiver/return specialist. As much as Rivera says he likes undrafted rookie wideout Philly Brown returning punts, the drops have to make him nervous. There are quite a few interesting players available, including Jets 2012 second-round pick Stephen Hill.

Panthers moves: Cut -- LB Denicos Allen, CB Carrington Byndom, G Derek Dennis, CB James Dockery, LB Adarius Glanton, WR Tavarres King, S Robert Lester, WR Marcus Lucas, OT Andrew McDonald, S Tom Nelson, DT Drake Nevis, RB Darrin Reaves, DT Micanor Regis, LB D.J. Smith, CB Josh Thomas, DT Casey Walker, FB Michael Zordich, OG Chris Scott. Waived/injured -- T Kevin Hughes. Waived/injured settlement -- TE Mike McNeil, S Anderson Russell. Reserve/suspended -- DE Frank Alexander.
Royster
Scott
The reported release of right guard Chris Scott means the Carolina Panthers are confident the groin injury that sidelined rookie Trai Turner in the past two preseason games won't be an issue for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay.

Scott appeared to have worked himself into position to challenge Turner for the start, but according to Pro Football Talk, he was released on Saturday as the Panthers trimmed their roster to 53.

When asked on Wednesday about the possibility of Scott starting versus the Buccaneers, coach Ron Rivera said, "Chris worked himself into a good position, and we'll see how it goes."

Scott started eight games last season before a knee injury became an issue.

A fifth-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010, the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Scott had issues with conditioning that sidelined him for much of offseason workouts. He failed conditioning tests at Buffalo in 2013, making him available for the Panthers to sign.

The release of Scott also shows Carolina's confidence in Fernando Velasco's ability to play center and guard. Velasco signed with the Panthers in July after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 14 last season.
Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin jammed his middle finger and let a touchdown pass slip through his hands during Thursday night's exhibition finale at Pittsburgh.

Otherwise, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound wide receiver out of Florida State had a strong preseason and established himself as the No. 1 target the Panthers were looking for when they released Steve Smith in March.

The finger doesn't appear to be anything that will be an issue, and Benjamin played longer than he was scripted to because he wanted more time on the field. Two of his four catches for 56 yards were in traffic over the middle.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Don WrightKelvin Benjamin has been everything the Panthers were expecting when they drafted him in the first round.
"We wanted Kelvin to get some good reps,'' coach Ron Rivera said after the 10-0 victory that gave Carolina a 2-2 preseason record. "We wanted to give him the opportunity to get good plays. He is still young and is still learning, but is still a valuable part.''

As the Panthers begin preparing for the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay, let's take a look at the entire 2014 draft class and how it will impact this season:

  • WR Kelvin Benjamin (first round, No. 28) -- Some teams had Benjamin rated as a second-round pick, saying he was too inexperienced and unproven. The Panthers felt lucky to get him in the first. He played like a top-10 pick during the preseason, leading the team in catches with 12 for 173 yards and a touchdown. Look for him to be quarterback Cam Newton's top wide receiver target this season. Grade: A-minus
  • DE Kony Ealy (second round, No. 60) -- The Panthers had Ealy ranked as a late first-round pick, but he's performed more like a second-rounder. He got off to a slow start in training camp, but maybe some of that had to do with the depth at his position. When you're being compared to Pro Bowler Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, third on the team's all-time sack list, you're going to pale. Grade: C-plus
  • OG Trai Turner (third round, No. 92) -- He was the front-runner to be the starting right guard from the get-go, and was performing at a high level before a groin injury sidelined for him the last two preseason games. Whether or not he starts in the opener remains to be determined because Chris Scott has played well in his absence, but he'll play major role. Grade: B-plus
  • S Tre Boston (fourth round, No. 128) -- He underwent sports hernia surgery in June and never really got a chance to earn a roster spot. Odds are he'll be placed on injured reserve with the hope to later return to the practice squad. The Panthers like his future. Grade: Incomplete
  • CB Bene' Benwikere (fifth round, No. 148) -- Perhaps the biggest surprise of this draft class. He has played well enough to at least split time with veteran Charles Godfrey at the nickel position. Grade: B
  • RB Tyler Gaffney (sixth round, No. 204) -- The Patriots did what Carolina should have done with the former Stanford star early in camp. They stashed him on injured reserve when the roster was cut to 75. Carolina released Gaffney, who suffered a season-ending knee injury early in training camp, hoping he would clear waivers and they could place him on injured reserve. New England spoiled that plan by claiming what Carolina considered one of the better blocking backs in the draft. Had Gaffney not been injured he likely would have been the fourth back. The good news is Carolina found Fozzy Whittaker, who led the team in rushing during the preseason. Grade: F

 

Fantasy: Cam Newton

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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video

Christopher Harris analyzes Cam Newton's draft value.

Carolina Panthers' projected roster

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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Examining the Carolina Panthers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)
Webb looked expendable until Newton suffered a fractured rib in the third preseason game against New England. Coach Ron Rivera was fairly adamant the Panthers will keep three quarterbacks until it is clear Newton is healthy -- and maybe longer.

RUNNING BACKS (4)

Whittaker emerged as the fourth back after the trade of Kenjon Barner to Philadelphia. Darrin Reaves still could figure into the mix, but with three quarterbacks, that doesn't appear likely now.

RECEIVERS (6)

This became clearer when Tiquan Underwood, Kealoha Pilares and Toney Clemons were released. It still wouldn't surprise if the Panthers picked up a receiver/kick returner off waivers after final cuts.

TIGHT ENDS (4)
Mike McNeill was signed to a two-year deal early in free agency, but with the emergence of Williams and a nagging knee injury, he becomes expendable. It still wouldn't surprise if the Panthers kept five tight ends at what has become the deepest position outside of the defensive front. That likely would mean eight linemen instead of nine.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

The key here is flexibility, which might mean eight instead of nine if the Panthers choose to keep five tight ends. Williams and Chandler can play tackle or guard. Turner can play guard and backup center. Folkerts and Velasco can play center and guard. Undrafted rookie tackle David Foucault appears to be the odd man out.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

As I continue to say, don't forget defensive end Frank Alexander. He has had a great preseason, earning Rivera's vote as the MVP of camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina. But he will be suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He will return to the 53-man roster in October.

LINEBACKERS (6)

Again, flexibility is key. Blackburn, who missed the past two preseason games with a back injury, can step in and replace Kuechly if he ever had to come off the field. He's more dependable than Klein there. Many of these players will be on special teams. D.J. Smith could figure into the mix.

CORNERBACKS (5)

The starters appear set in Cason and White. Benwikere and Godfrey will share the nickel spot. Norman is having another good preseason. This makes Josh Thomas the odd man out.

SAFETIES (4)

Flip a coin between Russell and Robert Lester for the final spot. As insurance, the Panthers are working safety-turned-cornerback Godfrey back at safety some. Godfrey's versatility to do both allows the Panthers to go with one less defensive back and keep three quarterbacks. The plan for fourth-round pick Tre Boston likely will be injured reserve or waived injured and then re-signed and placed on the practice squad.

SPECIALISTS (3)

These positions are set, barring an injury.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said only a few starting positions were up for grabs before Thursday night's 10-0 victory at Pittsburgh in the preseason finale.

Here's how I see the top 22 as the Panthers begin focusing on the Sept. 7 opener at Tampa Bay:

Offense
  • LT Byron Bell -- Beat out Nate Chandler for the job halfway through training camp. Still concerns me the way teams have bull-rushed him.
  • LG Amini Silatolu -- Never challenged as he reclaimed the job he had before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in the fourth game last season.
  • C Ryan Kalil -- A four-time Pro Bowler. Nothing more needs to be said.
  • RG Chris Scott -- Rookie Trai Turner started the first two preseason games and still could be the starter, but a groin injury has sidelined him the last two games. Ideally, Turner is Carolina's guy. But the lack of practice this close to the opener has to be concerning.
  • RT Nate Chandler -- There's still a chance the Panthers could go with veteran Garry Williams, but they like having him available as a backup for relief at guard and tackle.
  • RB DeAngelo Williams -- He may be 31, but according to running backs coach Jim Skipper he hasn't lost a step. He also has the other half of "Double Trouble'' back in Jonathan Stewart to push him.
  • FB Mike Tolbert -- He has a lot of nicknames making fun of his round physique. You can just call him solid.
  • TE Greg Olsen -- He missed Thursday's game to be with his son, recovering from his third open heart surgery after being born in 2012 with a congenital heart defect. But the team's leading receiver with 73 catches last season will be ready for Tampa.
  • WR Kelvin Benjamin -- The first-round draft pick out of Florida State, at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, already has earned the praise of receivers coach Ricky Proehl as a bona fide No. 1 wideout.
  • WR Jerricho Cotchery -- The Panthers brought him and Jason Avant in to replace the veteran leadership of Steve Smith, who was cut in March. Despite the lack of preseason production, the team is pleased.
  • QB Cam Newton -- Ankle surgery in March. Fractured ribs a week ago. No problem. The two-time Pro Bowl selection says he will be in the starting lineup against the Bucs.
Defense
  • LDE Charles Johnson -- A hamstring injury kept him out of three of four preseason games, the last more for precautionary reasons. His resume includes 54 sacks, third on the team's all-time list.
  • LDT Colin Cole -- Rivera calls him a "space eater.'' Cole prefers "Monster in the Middle,'' or something like that. Whatever, he's rock solid.
  • RDT Star Lotulelei -- Still surprised he didn't get more consideration for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. Needs a few more sacks than the three he had to garner more attention.
  • RDE Greg Hardy -- The 2013 Pro Bowl selection led the team in sacks last season with 15. Despite his legal issues, he's playing for a new contract in 2015, which is good for Carolina.
  • SLB Chase Blackburn -- Many have second-year player A.J. Klein beating him out -- and he might -- but Blackburn's experience and consistency could be too valuable.
  • MLB Luke Kuechly -- If you haven't heard, he is the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
  • WLB Thomas Davis -- He should have been in the Pro Bowl last season.
  • LCB -- Antoine Cason -- Resurrecting a career that began with him playing for Rivera at San Diego after a one-year vacation in Arizona.
  • RCB Melvin White -- A year later he's still undrafted and still the best option here. But Josh Norman is waiting in the wings for either corner spot.
  • FS Thomas DeCoud -- The Panthers signed him specifically to replace Mike Mitchell, who signed with Pittsburgh in free agency. More people know him now than knew Mitchell this time last season.
  • SS Roman Harper -- Turf toe kept him out of most of the preseason, but he appears ready and insists he'll bring an attitude to the rebuilt secondary.

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